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Torn by civil wars, China had by AD 208 been split into three separate kingdoms. In the south, the generals Liu Bei and Sun Quan maintained an uneasy alliance against the north. When the generals decided to attack the northern Kingdom, Liu chose his chief strategist, Zhuge Liang, to plan the assault.

The generals needed a wind from the south-east to launch their dawn raid, but the night was calm. Worse, the prevailing wind of midwinter was in the wrong quarter. Zhuge Liang, working his magic on a three-tiered altar in the hills, was their only hope. The fate of south China depended on whether he could achieve the impossible. Suddenly, the flags began to flap . . .

Across the Yangzi River, the enemy ships were chained together for greater stability, because the northern Chinese suffered from seasickness. Now, with a fierce wind blowing, the southern generals sent fire-ships speeding towards their helpless targets. The northern fleet was destroyed and the place became known as Red Cliffs, having been marked by the fierce flames.

Although the fire-ship attack at the Battle of Red Cliffs did happen, some of this story has bee colored by tradition. Zhuge Liang, however, was real enough. Born in AD 181, he joined Liu Bei as military strategist in AD 207. He showed both subtlety and cunning, and when Liu Bei declared himself king of Shu in AD 220, Zhuge Liang became prime minister, a post he held until his death 14 years later.

On the battlefield, he used a mysterious tactical formation based on the I Ching divination manual. He also invented a multi-shot siege crossbow and ‘wooden oxen’ – self-motivated automatons for carrying army suppliers. Some sects of the Daoist religion claim Zhuge Liang as their founder, and he is one of the best-loved figures in Chinese tradition.