Zhang Fei, Liu Bei, and Guan Yu
(Chohi, Gentoku, Kan'u)
signed Gototei Kunisada ga, publisher's seal (obstructed) Toriaburacho, Tsuruki han (Tsuruya Kiemon of Senkakudo), censor's seal kiwame, ca. 1830
oban tate-e triptych 13 7/8 by 30 1/8 in., 35.4 by 76.5 cm
This composition depicts Zhang Fei, Liu Bei, and Guan Yu (Japanese names Chohi, Gentoku, and Kan'u respectively), three heroes from the 14th century Chinese novel Sanguo hanyi (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms). The novel is attributed to the author Luo Guanzhong (either 1280-1360 or 1330-1400) and is considered to be one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature. It tells the story of the many battles and power struggles following the end of the Han dynasty, a period from 169 AD to 280 AD. Liu Bei (pictured in the center sheet, whose historical counterpart lived from 161 to 223) ruled the Shu-Han state with the close guidance of his blood oath brothers Guan Yu (right sheet, d. 220) and Zhang Fei (left sheet, d. 221). In both China and Japan, the three warriors are remembered as paragons of martial abilities. That being said, their legacies are individuated. Liu Bei is thought of as a wise and accomplished ruler and Guan Yu is held in deep regard for his loyalty and integrity. In addition to being a brilliant tactician, legend has it that Zhang Fei was a heavy drinker.
In this design, the three warriors are depicted on horseback, riding through the snow to meet with the Taoist scholar Zhuge Liang (Japanese name Komei, 181-234) in the hopes of enlisting him as an advisor. It took Liu Bei three visits before he finally convinced the old scholar to serve his cause. After Zhuge Liang joined his entourage, Liu Bei originated a colloquialism by remarking "Zhuge Liang is to me as a fish is to water."
Jan Van Doesburg, What About Kunisada?, 1990, pp. 64-65, plate 21
Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 1, 2006, p. 71 (re: Liu Bei quote)
James King and Yuriko Iwakiri, Japanese Warrior Prints 1646-1905, 2007, p. 212, cat. no. 113 (re: Guan Yu)
Amy Reigle Newland and Chris Uhlenbeck, Yoshitoshi: Masterpieces from the Ed Fries Collection, 2011, p. 98, cat. no. 63.6 (re: Zhang Fei)
British Museum, London (britishmuseum.org), museum nos. 1908,0718,0.59.1-3 and 1906,1220,0.1104.1-2
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