Friday, August 8, 2008

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

With the Olympic games underway in Beijing, I will take this opportunity to review the 14th century Chinese epic San guo yan yi, known to English readers as Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Another reason I want to review this book first is that my interest in the Middle Ages can be be traced back to my first experience with this work. It was actually not the book that got me interested, but rather a video game of the same name. During my high school days, my friends Val, Kevin and myself would constantly play this game where we would control a small principality and go to war with rivals states or each other. The game had hundreds of characters in it, each which had their own abilities and personalities. They had names like Liu Bei, Zhuge Liang and Cao Cao. While the game came with a short guide about these people and a history of the Three Kingdoms period, I was still very curious about this story.

After months of searching, I finally found a copy of an English translation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and ever since I started reading it I have found it to be my favourite historical novel.

Historical novel is not the best way to describe this book, as it is a kind of hybrid of history and fiction. The book was written by Chinese official named Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century, and purports to be a history of the fall of the Later Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms period (169-280 AD). At 120 chapters and 800 000 words, this is an epic tale, where the author explains how the Chinese emperors grew weak in the latter half of the second-century, to the point where rebels and warlords took over the country and left the last Han emperor a puppet-ruler. The author did have access to strong sources, including ones that go back to third century to base his work on, and most of it does follow the written accounts. But Luo Guanzhong also alters the historical record in places to make his main character, Liu Bei, and his followers, to be more virtuous and honourable than they actually were. This is because the author wanted to use this book to be a kind of guide, to show people different ways on how to govern, fight wars, and behave. Dozens of his characters are given a full range of characteristics and depth, even if they appear in only a few lines. Some are heroic, others cowardly. Even his heroes are flawed, and his villains have virtues. I have found his portrayal of Cao Cao, the main villain in the work, to be the most interesting person in the whole book. Cao Cao's philosophy gets summed up when he says "I would rather betray the world than allow the world to betray me," and it is this outlook that leads him to becoming the most important warlord of the collapsing Han Dynasty (his son would eventually depose the last Han Emperor and start the Wei Dynasty).

You can read this book in many ways - as an evaluation of character, as a guide to rulership and government, a practical supplement to Sun Zu's The Art of War, or just as an intriguing story that has been shared for centuries.

For English readers, there are a couple of choices when getting a translation of this book. In 1925, C.H. Brewitt-Taylor provided the first complete English translation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The book is filled with all kinds of spelling mistakes and errors, and it comes with no notes or explanations. A much better translation and edition is Moss Roberts' Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel, which does include an introduction and lenghty endnotes. Another option is to read an online version (a cleaned-up version of Brewitt-Taylor's edition) here.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

About me: Peter Konieczny

It seems appropriate to start this blog by writing a little about myself and what we are doing with the website. The quick sketch of myself: I am a librarian living near Toronto, Canada, with my wife and 2 year old son. Since I was in grade school I have had an interest in history, at first Canadian history, but by my undergraduate days at the University of Toronto I became more interested in the Middle Ages. My first trip to Kalamazoo ensured that I would be a medievalist. By the time I finished my undergraduate degree I had my first article published, "In Search of Rodrgio Diaz: The Sources of El Cid" for Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching.

As I started a Master's degree in History at the University of Toronto, my interests focused into examining warfare and violence in the Middle Ages. I got involved with De Re Militari: The Society for Medieval Military History, an academic association representing medieval military history scholars. Many thanks should go to Kelly DeVries, Clifford J. Rogers, Bert Hall and many other members for their support and guidance with my academic career. Since 2001 I have been serving as the website editor for De Re Militari's website, a very enjoyable experience.

I have studied a wide range of topics in the area of medieval military history, giving papers on the Role of Anglo-Norman Kings in the Treatment of Prisoners of War, Warfare in Thirteenth Century Iceland, and The City of London's role in English wars during the Fourteenth Century. You can read an article I wrote about that last topic in The Hundred Years War: A Wider Focus, edited by L.J. Andrew Villalon and Donald J. Kagay.

My interest in London's military history also led me to working more on other topics in London, in particular the late 13th and 14th centuries, where we have a rich set of records from the city's local government. I have given papers on several different topics, including violent crime, frauds and con-artists, churchwarden accounts and the development of a water supply system in the medieval city.

After completing my MA in History, and I considered going into a PhD program, but ultimately I decided not to go through with it for two reasons: first, the number of positions for professors of medieval studies was (and still is) not great, so getting a job after 5 more years of studying looked bleak; and secondly, my ability to learn new languages was (and still is) terrible. I don't think my Latin will ever be good enough to pass a university-level test. With this in mind, I decided to go into Library Science. For a few years I had been working at the main library at UofT, which I really enjoyed, and I felt this would be a way for me to keep my foot in the medieval door. I went on and in 2003 completed a Master's degree in Library and Information Studies, again at the University of Toronto.

Since then I have worked at a few different libraries, academic and public, and for the last three years I have been the librarian at Oxford College, a small private career college that focuses on medical programs like dental hygiene. Throughout this time I have also been working on the De Re Militari site by adding new content to it and expanding its resources. Soon after I started the website, I decided it would be best to begin adding material such as primary sources and articles to it, so that our members, many of whom teach in universities, can offer some of these items to their classes. I found that authors and publishers were very helpful and gave me permission to republish their material. From 2001 to 2005 I was able to add hundreds of pages to the site (I lost count a long time ago), including articles that were written within the last few years. Most of our material cannot be found on other websites, and it covers a wide range of topics related to medieval military history. The site also added a book review section, under direction of Steven Walton (I have to send him those reviews!). The website has received a lot of positive reviews, and although I still occasionally add some new material to it, I consider it to be largely finished, as there is enough material on it to keep a scholar reading for years.

Over the last few years, I have been interested in taking the concept I did on the De Re Militari website and expanding it to cover other fields in medieval studies. Looking around the net, I can see there are many great websites and blogs that deal with the Middle Ages, but they tend to focus on a particular subject like the Vikings or medieval architecture. I want to create a website where anyone who studies or just enjoys the Middle Ages can begin their web surfing. I have owned the domain name for about a year and a half, and there already is some material on it, but we expect it to grow quite a lot over the next few months and years. I have brought in my long-time friend and fellow medievalist Sandra Alvarez to be my partner in a a company we call will be our main website, but we are also going to develop websites in other fields of history.

My role in this blog will be to talk about issues and news that have come up in the medievalist community, to provide updates on the website's progress, and to do some special features here. One of these features is to review a medieval historical source, such as a chronicle, poem, or other document. It will be a kind of overview of this work, what you can learn from it, why is it so good to read, as well as some practical information such as how you can get a translated edition of it.

Thanks for reading this introduction and I hope you continue to enjoy our site.