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Archive: Utagawa Kunisada I (歌川國貞); later called Toyokuni III (三代 豊國)

Kan Zhang Liang (韓張良 ) and Huang Shigong (黃石公), from the series Kan-So gundan (Battle tales of the Han and Chu: 漢楚軍談)
ôju [by request] Gototei Kunisada ga (雄需五渡亭国貞画)
No artist seal; Censor Seal: kiwame (極印) meaning "approved"
No publisher seal, but others from the series have the seals of Eijudô (Nishimuraya Yohachi) or Jôshûya Jûzô (apparently for the earliest printings)
c. 1827
(H x W)
Ôban nishiki
38.4 x 26.5 cm
Excellent, deluxe edition with embossing and metallics
Excellent color and overall condition, unbacked; minor spots and rubbing, expertly repaired tiny wormhole below left cartouche
Price (USD/¥):

The series Kan-So gundan (Battle tales of the Han and Chu: 漢楚軍談 Chinese: Han-Chu juntan) includes at least six designs by Kunisada, all issued around 1827 when the vogue for stories based on Chinese warrior tales opened up a wide arena for the pictorialization of exotic martial heroes. Utagawa Kuniyoshi is undoubtedly the first ukiyo-e artist who comes to mind when considering prints in this genre, in particular his impressive Tsûzoku Suikoden gôketsu hyakuhachinin no hitori (The 108 heroes of the popular Suikoden—all told) from c. 1827. Yet Kunisada, too, contributed some vivid renderings of selected tales, as in the series represented here. The events involve the fall of the Qin dynasty (221-207 BCE) and rise of the Han dynasty (206 BCE -220 AD).

The central figure in these tales is Liu Bang (劉邦 256–195 BCE), a peasant-born warrior who, during a period of prolonged civil war, rose to the rank of a commanding general and, by forcing the surrender of the last Qin ruler in 206 BCE, became the first Han emperor, known as Han Gaozu, "The High Ancestor of Han" (漢高祖 called Kôso in Japan), He reigned from 202-195 BCE.


Kunisada depicts Kan Zhang Liang (韓張良 251-186 BCE), a strategist and statesman known as one of the "Three Heroes of the early Han dynasty" (漢初三傑), along with the military general Han Xin (韓信 231-196 BCE) and the politician Xiao He (蕭何 died 193 BCE). After a failed attempt to assassinate the emperor Qin Shi Huang, Zhang Liang evaded capture using false identities. One day, he walked near Yishui Bridge, where he encountered an old man who threw his shoe below the bridge and yelled at Zhang, "Hey boy, go down and fetch me my shoe!" Astonished, Zhang Liang complied. The old man then lifted his foot and ordered Zhang Liang to put the shoe on his foot. Although angered, Zhang Liang obliged. The old man, showing no sign of gratitude, walked away laughing, but then returned and praised Zhang Liang, saying "This child can be taught!" and asked him to meet at the bridge again at dawn five days later. On the appointed day, Zhang Liang appeared at dawn and found that the old man was already there, insulting him by saying, "How can you be late for a meeting with an elderly man? Come back again in five days!" Zhang Liang tried his best to be punctual, but the old man was again waiting for him when he arrived and ordered Zhang Liang to return once more five days later. Finally, Zhang Liang went to the bridge at midnight and waited until the old man appeared. Zhang Liang's fortitude and humility impressed the old man, and so he presented him with a book, saying, "You can become the tutor of a ruler after reading this book. Within ten years, the world will become chaotic. You can then use your knowledge from this book to bring peace and prosperity to the empire. Meet me again in 13 years. I'm the yellow rock at the foot of Mount Gucheng." The old man was Huang Shigong (黃石公; lit. "Yellow Rock Old Man"). The book was titled The Art of War by Taigong (太公兵法), actually believed to be either the Six Secret Teachings (Liù Tāo: 六韜) from the 11th-centry BCE by Jiang Ziya (姜子牙), or possibly the Three Strategies of Huang Shigong (Huáng Shígōng Sān Lüè: 黃石公三略) from the late Han dynasty. In legend, Zhang Liang returned to the indicated site 13 years later and did see a yellow rock. He built a shrine to honor Huang Shigong, and the rock was buried with him after his death.

Kunisada's design captures the moment when Zhang Liang returns the shoe to Huang Shigong. It is a rare design with exceptional preservation of colors and in very good condition.

While our impression lacks a publisher's seal, another example on the Internet (current location unknown) bears the seal of Eijudô (Nishimuraya Yohachi).


There are many publications on the works of Kunisada. A good introduction in English is by Sebastian Izzard (with essays by J. Thomas Rimer and John Carpenter): Kunisada's World. New York: Japan Society in collaboration with Ukiyo-e Society of America, 1993.