A tale of two princelings
Rival Chinese leaders who once shared near-parallel lives now face dramatically different fates
In an iconic scene from the Chinese classic novel Romance Of The Three Kingdoms, General Zhou Yu coughs up blood and collapses after being outfoxed repeatedly by rival strategist Zhuge Liang.
"If Yu has already been born, why is there Liang?" he laments to the heavens before dying.
The famous line - ji sheng yu, he sheng liang - probably resonates keenly with fallen political star Bo Xilai, held in an undisclosed location while awaiting trial, which is most likely to end with him being condemned to a long jail term.
For while the former Chongqing party chief prepares for a life of incarceration, his rival Xi Jinping, a man whose life mirrors his in so many ways, is readying to take over the reins of the Chinese Communist Party by next month.
The two men, the modern-day Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang, offer a contrasting tale of China's two most famous princelings.
"Why did these two, coming from similar family backgrounds, with similar early career paths, end up in such dramatically different fashion?" asked observer Tan Qingshan from Cleveland State University. "It is a good case study on China's leadership succession."
Both men, born just four years apart, shared near-parallel journeys for the first half of their lives - a privileged childhood, tormented years during the Cultural Revolution, budding careers in coastal cities and even second marriages to glamorous wives.
They were scions of revolutionary communist heroes, brought up in the comforts of Zhongnanhai, the leadership compound which abuts the Forbidden City, in the 1950s.
Those were heady days. It was the new People's Republic, and the reins of the old imperial capital of Beijing had just been handed over to new socialist lords. For the two young boys - Mr Bo is older, born in 1949 - they were truly princelings in a new red dynasty.
But the turbulence of a young regime soon caught up with them. In 1962, when Mr Xi was just nine, his father Xi Zhongxun fell afoul of Chairman Mao Zedong and was purged.
A similar fate befell Mr Bo's family at the start of the Cultural Revolution four years later, when his father Bo Yibo was jailed and tortured after being accused of treason.
The 17-year-old Xilai was also locked up and then made to work in a factory. Jinping spent a large part of those years as a pig farmer.
When the Cultural Revolution waned in the mid-1970s, the two young men began rebuilding their privileged lives in China's best schools.
Mr Bo enrolled in Peking University to study world history. Mr Xi read chemical engineering in neighbouring Tsinghua University. But they were not known to be close.
By the time they graduated, China was ready to embrace a market economy. Their fathers, who thankfully survived the torments of Mao, were regaining their political influence and would rise to become vice-premiers.
Riding on their fathers' connections into the cut-throat world of Chinese politics in the early 1980s, the two landed plum first jobs.
Mr Xi became secretary to his father's former subordinate Geng Biao, by then a vice-premier. Mr Bo worked at the research office of the Communist Party secretariat, considered a prized posting.
A few years later, their fathers again helped to facilitate their requests to head to the provinces for more grassroots experience. Mr Xi went to Hebei and then to Fujian, while Mr Bo travelled to Dalian.
"They chose those places because they would be protected and looked after by their respective father's friends there," said analyst Wang Zhengxu from the University of Nottingham.
Both men would divorce their first wives, whose fathers were also senior officials, during that period.
Mr Bo married glamorous and beautiful lawyer Gu Kailai, daughter of a military general, in 1986. A year later, Mr Xi also took a trophy wife - famous Chinese folk singer Peng Liyuan.
But as they climbed the ranks of officialdom, their contrasting personalities and track records would eventually send their lives on divergent paths.
While the urbane Mr Bo went for big-bang "image" projects in north-eastern Dalian, the chubby Mr Xi preferred to boost southern Fuzhou in a low-key manner, drawing Taiwanese investors.
Even after 2002, when both had their big breaks, one charmed while the other irritated. Mr Xi continued to be pragmatic after being made leader of a province - coastal Zhejiang - for the first time.
Mr Bo, made Commerce Minister, irked both his superiors and peers with his showmanship at home and abroad.
"Xi is a low-profile guy, while Bo is an assertive man. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) culture always rewards the former and punishes the latter," said analyst Zhang Jian from Peking University.
This all became clear in 2007, when Mr Xi became China's vice-president and Mr Bo was shunted to south-western Chongqing to be party chief.
This was reportedly because Mr Bo's superiors - Premier Wen Jiabao and then Vice-Premier Wu Yi, among others - were peeved with his work and showy behaviour and wanted him out of Beijing.
"Bo says things he does not believe, behaves like he is untouchable, and does things hypocritically. Xi, due to his low-key profile, presents himself to people as if he is a person with no dirty laundry, someone reliable and consistent," said Professor Tan.
Their fathers' actions during the epochal 1989 Tiananmen incident also influenced the 2007 decision.
Xi senior frowned on the military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters and spoke up for deposed reform-minded leader Hu Yaobang, whereas Bo senior voiced support for a hardline approach.
Mr Xi Zhongxun, long seen to be a principled man, cemented that reputation. Mr Bo Yibo, whom many regarded as an opportunist, confirmed the view.
President Hu Jintao and Mr Wen, both proteges of Mr Hu Yaobang, were believed to be grateful to Xi senior for speaking up for their mentor.
Even though Mr Hu's preferred candidate for vice-president was Mr Li Keqiang, the current vice-premier, he found Mr Xi an acceptable alternative.
"It is believed that Xi Zhong-xun's reputation and kind deeds helped his son a lot," said Professor Zhang.
Down but not out, Mr Bo was determined to find a way back to Beijing. He needed another big bang and found it in championing a Maoist revival in Chongqing.
The move had its supporters but also offended many in the CCP and would precipitate his downfall after his wife committed murder.
"Bo is extremely aggressive and egocentric. Eventually, party colleagues see Xi as someone trustworthy and Bo as having destructive tendencies," said Dr Wang.
The similarities that the Zhou Yu-Zhuge Liang rivalry bear to his own with Mr Xi could not have escaped Mr Bo.
After all, if Bo has already been born, why is there Xi?
"Xi is a low-profile guy, while Bo is an assertive man. The Chinese Communist Party culture always rewards the former and punishes the latter."
- ANALYST ZHANG JIAN, from Peking University