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Game of thrones at the fall of the Han dynasty

'Three Kingdoms', a 14th century classic of Chinese literature, was Mao Zedong's favourite book. Ma Jian reflects on its parallels with the nation's history.

Walking back from school one day, at the age of six or seven, I stopped at a dusty roadside book stall, and among the biographies of revolutionary martyrs spotted a small picture book featuring stories from Luo Guanzhong's Three Kingdoms.

Flicking through the pages, I marvelled at the detailed lithographs depicting scenes of second- and third-century upheavals: the massacre of palace eunuchs by the rebel group, the Yellow Scarves; the fall of the Han empire, and China's subsequent descent into chaos as rival warlords fought for territorial supremacy. I pored over military scenes showing the merciless tyrant Cao Cao leading his cavalry of thousands to wage war against the righteous Liu Bei, and others showing Liu Bei's final defeat against the Wu forces at the battle of Xiaoting.

The book was the size of my palm, and contained only the briefest quotations from Luo Guanzhong's tome, yet it still managed to convey some of the epic sweep of the original, with its enthralling complexities of plot and character, and exploration of heroism, cruelty, loyalty, and deceit. It was 1960, and my parents, four siblings, and I lived in one small room in the port town of Qingdao. The only book my family owned was The Selected Writings of Mao Zedong.

China was in the grip of the Great Famine. Every evening, my brothers and I would trail through the streets, searching for discarded apple cores or vegetable scraps to devour in dark corners.

The town was paralysed by poverty and hunger. I had no money to buy the picture book, but leafing through its pages I could sense the stories nourishing me, giving me a glimpse into another world: one of adventure, action, and intrigue.

Three Kingdoms famously begins with the statement: "The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been." Luo Guanzhong understood the recurring pattern of Chinese history, which is characterised by dynastic rise and fall. Kingdoms are created, grow prosperous, then decay and collapse; the country then falls into a period of turmoil until a new kingdom is formed and order is re-established. Then the cycle begins again.

Just six years after the stagnation and paralysis of the Great Famine, when it seemed as though nothing in China would ever change, Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution, and the country was once more plunged into chaos. Chairman Mao, the "Great Helmsman", urged the destruction of the "Four Olds": old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Answering his call, my classmates and I took all the books from the school library and set fire to them in the playground. Along with Outlaws of the Marsh, Journey to the West and other classics of Chinese literature,Three Kingdoms – ironically Mao's favourite book – was deemed a remnant of the feudal past that needed to be destroyed.

The schools soon closed. Bookshops and book stalls disappeared. Red Guards stormed into homes, confiscated any book that would not gain Mao's approval and burned them on the streets. At first, the turbulence was exciting. Rival factions of Red Guards vied for control of the town. Inspired by the peach-garden oath taken by Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei in the first chapter of Three Kingdoms, two friends and I met in the local park and decided to form a rebel group that would attack Red Guard factions which strayed from the Maoist line. We swore allegiance, paraphrasing Luo Guanzhong's great book. We wandered through the park all day, trying to recruit members. But no one was willing to join our band once they discovered we couldn't afford to buy them armbands. By the end of the day, we lost heart and gave up.

Before long, the confrontations in the streets turned violent. In the courtyard of a nearby shell-crafts factory, I saw workers beaten to death by rival revolutionary gangs, heads smashing to the ground and cracking open like watermelons. My previous naive excitement was replaced by horror. I preferred to stay indoors after that.

A few months later, one of the friends who took the peach-garden oath with me came to our room and handed me a book with a brown paper cover. I opened it and discovered that it was an incomplete copy of Three Kingdoms. "I rescued it from a fire," he said. "Most of the pages were singed, so I had to tear them out. Don't tell anyone I gave it to you. And pass it on once you've finished."

I was ecstatic to receive such a gift. This time, illustrations were unnecessary. Luo Guanzhong's words made the scenes come alive by themselves. Cao Cao, whose determination and sense of adventure I'd secretly admired in the picture book, was now revealed as the complex, merciless tyrant he is. In contrast to Cao Cao, the paranoid tyrant who will stoop to any brutish, immoral act to achieve his aims, Luo Guanzhong shows Zhuge Liang, prime minister of Shu, using psychological insight and ruse to conquer his foe.

I didn't own a complete copy of Three Kingdoms until 15 years later. Mao was dead, the country was opening up, and the classics of Chinese fiction were sold in the bookshops again, along with translations of Hemingway, Updike and Kafka. I had become a painter, and had begun writing short stories, too. At last I was able to read Three Kingdoms from beginning to end, and fully appreciate its masterful literary qualities.

In the Eastern Han Dynasty, the population of China was estimated to be over 56 million. By the end of the Three Kingdoms period, it had plummeted to 16 million. The bloody events of this war-wracked century are documented in Records of the Three Kingdoms by the historian Chen Shou (233–97). But it is Luo Guanzhong's Three Kingdoms, written a thousand years later, that has cemented this period into the minds of the Chinese people.

The novel is commonly regarded as 70 percent history and 30 percent fiction. The 30 percent is crucial, though, because it brings the 70 percent alive. Each of the book's 40 battles is different; each of its one thousand characters has a distinct individuality. Although some of the most memorable scenes, such as the oath of the peach garden and Zhuge Liang's empty fort strategy, are figments of the author's imagination, they convey the spirit and humanity of the times in a more compelling way than a dry historical account could.

When he saw me engrossed in the book, my father would always repeat the Chinese proverb that warns: "The young should not read Outlaws of the Marsh; the old should not read Three Kingdoms."

The belief is that the former encourages the young to defy authority and the latter encourages the old to engage in deception, fraud, and cunning ruses. It is interesting to know that from his early campaigns against the Nationalists to his ascent to power, through the Cultural Revolution to his enfeebled old age, Mao Zedong always kept a copy of Three Kingdoms by his side. He studied the military strategies, and drew inspiration from characters such as Cao Cao who readily turned on former allies in their bid to maintain power.

But any tyrant who uses Three Kingdoms as a political or military manual should read the book carefully. For the moral of the novel is surely that leaders and oppressors who violate the moral codes of loyalty and benevolence sow the seeds of their own destruction, and will ultimately lose the "Mandate of Heaven" and fall victim to paranoia and failure.

Three Kingdoms is not just a vivid picture of a particular period in history. It teaches us about human nature, philosophy, morality, and the underlying patterns of human history. It is a masterpiece of world literature. In the words that Luo Guanzhong chooses to conclude each chapter, I would urge every reader to: "READ ON".

This is an extract from Ma Jian's introduction to 'Three Kingdoms', attributed to Luo Guanzhong, published in an illustrated edition by the Folio Society at £150.000. www.foliosociety.com Copyright © Ma Jian 2013. Translation © Flora Drew 2013. All rights reserved. Ma Jian's new novel, 'The Dark Road', will be published in April by Chatto & Windus