Early in the 3rd Century, China's mighty Han empire collapsed. From the wreckage emerged three kingdoms and competing warlords with an eye on the throne.
Centuries later their struggle was turned into China's favourite warfare epic - a story that underlines the historical fragility of the empire, and still provides an object lesson in good management.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is for China roughly what Homer is for Europeans, a swashbuckling adventure story, with lots of blood, excitement and craftiness on the battlefield.
Chinese boys live and breathe the story, with its hundreds of characters in cloaks and long robes and multiple sub-plots, spanning a century of convulsion before the empire was reunited.
"It is a general truism of this world that anything long divided will surely unite, and anything long united will surely divide."
These are the opening words of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The action begins just as the Han empire is about to break up.
The government is struggling to suppress a rebellion by peasants called the Yellow Turbans. It is forced to do what it hates to do: outsource troop recruitment - and that gives an opportunist called Liu Bei his big break.
Presenter: Carrie Gracie
Producer: Neal Razzell.