Artist: Kuniyoshi Utagawa (1798-1861)
Title: Guan Yu Passes Five Barriers
Series: The Popular Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Publisher: Tatsuya Kichizo
Dimensions: (L) 24.4 x 35.7 (C) 24.4 x 35.8 (R) 24.4 x 35.7 cm
This popular episode from Luo Guanzhong’s fourteenth century historical novel, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, recounts Guan Yu’s escape through five passes. Separated from his closest allies Liu Bei and Zhang Fei, who all famously swore an oath of brotherhood in a garden of peach trees, Guan Yu finds himself serving the warlord Cao Cao of the Wei kingdom. However, Guan Yu promptly departs as soon as he hears of the whereabouts of his sworn brother Liu Bei. Guan Yu’s renown as the most loyal and powerful warrior across the kingdoms, restrains Cao Cao from pursuing the warrior in order to keep his own reputation untainted. Instead, Cao Cao leaves Guan Yu’s fate to his generals across the five passes that bar his way to Liu Bei. At each of the gates, Guan Yu faces treachery, ambushes and mighty warriors who impede his passing. Yet, none are able to defeat him and all succumb to his unparalleled strength until he is finally able to reunite with his oath brother. These legendary exploits have given rise to the Chinese saying ‘to pass five gates and kill six generals’, describing how those destined to rise to the top are continually faced with adversaries of a higher skill.