Lot 111. An exceptionally rare and important archaic bronze ceremonial halberd blade (ge), Eastern Zhou dynasty, early Spring and Autumn period. Length 11 1/2 in., 29.1 cm. Estimate 200,000 — 300,000 USD. Unsold. Courtesy Sotheby's.
finely cast with the elongated yuan divided by a raised ridge in the middle of each side and extending downward to form the hu, inscribed to one side with eight characters reading Chu Qu Shutuo, Qu X zhisun, all bordered by sharply finished edges, the end pierced with three vertically arranged chuan (apertures), the nei with a further rectangular chuan and decorated with hook motifs, inscribed to one side with seven characters reading Chuwang zhi yuanyou, wang zhong, and the other side with five characters reading yu fou zhi X sheng, the surface patinated to a dark silver tone with light malachite encrustation.
Provenance: Collection of Liu Tizhi (1879-1962).
C.T. Loo, New York, November 1938, acquired for Alfred F. Pillsbury (1876-1950).
Frank Caro, successor to C.T. Loo, New York, 2nd August 1954.
Collection of Stephen Junkunc, III (d. 1978).
Note: This inscribed bronze halberd blade, although typical in form, is uniquely important as its inscription serves as a critical primary source that reveals the name of its original owner: Qu Shutuo of Chu. The only known close counterpart to this blade is a damaged bronze halberd blade, missing the yuan, and inscribed on the hu with seven characters, which can be generally translated to ‘for the auspicious use of Qu Shutuo of Chu’. That halberd is now in the collection of the Hunan Provincial Museum, Hunan, and published in Wu Zhenfeng, Shangzhou qingtongqi mingwen ji tuxiang jicheng[Compendium of inscriptions and images of bronzes from Shang and Zhou dynasties], vol. 32, Shanghai, 2012, no. 17048.
The reemergence of this significant blade has provided an opportunity for close examination revealing an inscription of a total of twenty characters, eight on the hu and twelve on the nei (seven on one side and five on the other side). The meaning of seven of these characters is unresolved; however the remaining thirteen can be translated as: 'Qu Shutuo of Chu, Qu X's grandson, yuanyou of the King of Chu'. Based on the inscription, the owner of this blade can be identified as someone named Qu Shutuo.
Twentieth century scholars, using only published ink rubbings and drawings of the present halberd, have attempted to match Qu Shutuo to members of the Qu family recorded in historical texts. The Qu family enjoyed prominent status in the Chu court. Members of the family were appointed to various positions as high officials and military generals. It is also believed the Qu family was of royal lineage. According to Tongzhi [Comprehensive records] written by the Song dynasty (960-1279) historian Zheng Qiao (1104-1162), Xia (d. 699 BC), son of King Wu of Chu (d. 690 BC), was rewarded the territory of Qu. He adopted Qu as his last name and became Qu Xia, the progenitor of the Qu family. Given the importance of the Qu family and its connection to the Chu court, the identification of Qu Shutuo contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of the Chu history.
The research of these scholars was, however, limited to a certain degree because an essential character—the first name of Qu Shutuo's grandfather—is illegible in some of the published rubbings and drawings of this halberd. Perhaps the most widely accepted theory regarding the identity of the halberd’s owner was developed by He Hao (b. 1929), a historian specializing the Chu state. In his paper, 'Chu Qu Shutuo Ge kao [Study of the halberd blade of Chu Qu Shutuo]', Anhui wenxue [Literature of Anhui], vol. 1, Hefei, 1985, pp 56-59, He Hao notes the name Qu Shutuo is not recorded in any of the pre-Qin dynasty (221-207 BC) texts. He posits that 'Shutuo' is in fact the zi of Qu, and therefore, there is a possibility that Qu Shutuo may have been recorded in the historical texts under a different name. He Hao then proposes a candidate, a royal guard of Chu named Qu Dang, who is recorded in the Zuozhuan [The Commentary of Zuo] to have participated in the Battle of Bi.
The Zuozhuan provides a detailed narrative on this famous battle fought between the Chu and Jin states in 597 BC, which ended in a decisive victory for Chu, and which, in turn, cemented the position of King Zhuang of Chu as one of the five hegemons of the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC). During this battle, the war chariots of King Zhuang of Chu were divided into the right and left flanks. Xu Yan commanded the right chariot with Yang Youji on the right. Peng Ming commanded the left chariot with Qu Dang on the right. When King Zhuang of Chu was in pursuit of General Zhao Zhan of Jin, Zhao was forced to abandon his chariot in the woods. Qu Dang then jumped off the chariot, successfully captured him and seized his armor.
He Hao notes in his paper that according to the Zhouli zhushu [Annotations to Rites of Zhou], the guard on the right of the royal war chariot holds a ge and a shield and rides together with the king. Qu Dang was on the right of the royal war chariot during the Battle of Bi, and therefore, he was a right guard to King Zhuang of Chu. The inscription on the present blade states that Qu Shutuo was the yuanyou of King Chu. He Hao argues yuanyou should be interpreted as the ‘right guard [of the war chariot]’, as the ancient name of war chariot is yuanrong, and the Chinese character for ‘right’ is you. Based on He’s interpretation, Qu Shutuo was a right guard for the king of Chu, which is consistent with the aforementioned historical records about Qu Dang.
In attempting to determine the character that specifies the first name of Qu Shutuo’s grandfather, which is illegible in most rubbings and drawings, He Hao traces the history of the Qu family based on historical texts and concludes that Qu Dang was the grandson of Qu Wan, who was the dafu of Chu (for his detailed discussion, see ibid., p. 58). In conclusion, He Hao believes the owner of this blade was Qu Dang and infers the character he could not read must be wan. The validity of He’s conclusion, therefore, relies on the identification of the missing character in the inscription, which will either corroborate or refute his hypothesis.
Fortunately, upon thorough physical inspection, the character previously illegible in the published rubbings can be made out. The once-intaglio character is now filled with oxidized encrustations and has an almost flat surface, which is why it could not be properly transferred via the ink rubbing. The character appears to be in a vertical two-part composition: the top part seems to be the character mao (spear), the bottom part has yet to be deciphered. Although the character remains unidentifiable, it is conspicuously different from the character wan. It is also unlikely to be the zi of Qu Wan, as a zi would normally consist of two characters. In addition, this character is not found in any of the names of the Qu family members noted in He Hao’s paper.
A closer examination of the blade also reveals an additional character, zhi (of) on one side of the nei, which does not appear in some of the previous illustrated publications. For example, in Wu Zhenfeng’s book, the author records nineteen characters (including the illegible character). The zhi character complicates existing understanding of the inscription, as the placement of this preposition character allows the last part of the inscription to be read in a different order, which could produce a different interpretation of the inscription.
The reemergence of the Chu Qu Shutuo Ge provides a great opportunity for the advancement of scholarship. The inscription poses challenges to the exciting understanding of Chu history raising fascinating new questions in the process. Hopefully fresh research based on this important artifact will illuminate the true identity of its original owner and the historical context surrounding him.
Ink rubbings by Li Zhi.
Sotheby's. Junkunc: Arts of Ancient China, New York, 19 march 2019, 10:00 AM