In 1352, when government forces burned down the temple, he joined a Red Turban rebel unit.
Rising rapidly through the ranks, he assembled a fighting force and branched out on his own.
But after a few weeks the temple ran out of food and he was forced to leave and go begging in the countryside.
For three years the famished and unprepossessing youth roamed around east central China observing the effects of famine and dynastic breakdown on farming people.
Surprise in a news story can take a couple of forms, information you didn’t know or something you didn’t expect.
Flipping through a newspaper and seeing an item you had no idea you’d want to read is an example of serendipity, a happy coincidence.
But as a once destitute peasant he maintained a seething distrust of such people, and as a contender for power he was suspicious of opposition and ready to suppress it at all costs.
His thirty-year reign was characterized by two radical policies: first, the most far-reaching and innovative agrarian reforms prior to those instituted by Mao Zedong in the mid-twentieth century, and second, a despotic control of government characterized by bloodthirsty and terrifying purges.
I’ve opened stories with an unintelligible line of Jane Austen; 9,000 placentas stewing in buckets; an impotent mouse; a phone call from a -80C freezer.
In some cases, the opening might be the moment in time where your story starts – for example, one of my stories opened with the arrival of a fax that told scientists they had found the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis. I love it when you’re reporting a story and something unscripted happens (eg the freezer calls) and you think: that’s my lead.