Lot 108. An exceedingly rare and important white and russet jade carving of a bear, Western Han Dynasty (206 BC- 8 AD); 5.7cm (2 5/16in) long. Estimate: HK$4,000,000.00 - HK$6,000,000.00 (€ 450,000 - 670,000). Sold for HK$ 6,700,000 (€ 752,149). © Bonhams.
Powerfully carved in movement, with the right foreleg extended forward, the head slightly tilted to the left, the round eyes gazing forward flanking the nose with small indentations for nostrils, the wide head with incised lines along the edges delineating the fur, the forehead with a central line below the raised ears, the rounded body and spine extending to the short tail with very fine incised lines on either side, the haunches well rounded and extending to the muscular legs and clawed feet, with one tucked underneath, the paws marked by circles, the fur along the belly denoted by two crescent incised lines, the stone of even white tone with russet along the nose and further minor inclusions, box.
Provenance: Piasa, Paris, 3 - 4 April 2006, lot 170
Durwin Tang Collection.
Note: This exceptional white jade sculpture of a bear represents the powerful beast caught in the midst of movement, with its left foreleg ready to pace forward ahead of the already extended right foreleg. Its head is set forward and slightly tilted to the left gazing intensely ready to challenge any opponent. This potent and powerful posture is characteristic to natural representations in jade and in bronze of Han dynasty bears, tigers and other wild beasts. However, jade sculptures in comparison to other carvings such as chimeras, are very rare.
A similar white jade carving of a bear, Western Han dynasty, with its head raised, was excavated from Weicheng District, Xianyang City, Shaanxi Province, in the Xianyang Museum, is illustrated by Gu Fang, The Pictorial Handbook of Ancient Chinese Jades, Beijing, 2007, p.271. See also a related large jade weight in the form of a bear, Western Han dynasty, excavated at Beidongshan, in Xuzhou Museum, Jiangsu Province, illustrated by J.C.S.Lin, ed., The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China, Cambridge, 2012, no.37, where the author notes that keeping of exotic wild animals in captivity was popular among the Kings of Chu.
White jade carving of a bear, Western Han dynasty, excavated from Weicheng District, Xianyang City, Shaanxi Province. Image courtesy of the Xianyang Museum.
Whilst Han dynasty gilt-bronze models of bears were used either as supports - or as mat-weights - such as the Robert Hatfield Ellsworth one which was sold at Christie's New York, 17 March 2015, lot 1 - jade carving as the present lot, considered particularly precious, would have most likely been on display for their spiritual protective prowess.
The bear has been a popular totemic emblem in China since ancient times. China's foundation myths hold that the legendary Yellow emperor, or Huang Di, early on lived with his tribe in the northwest, presumably in modern Shanxi Province, but then later migrated to Zhuolu, in present-day Hebei Province, where he became a farmer and tamed six different types of ferocious beasts, including the bear, or xiong, with which the Yellow emperor ever since has been linked. According to legend, Gun — said to have been the great-grandson of the Yellow emperor and the father of Yu the Great, or Da Yu — stole a special soil with which he planned to build dikes in an attempt to control the Yellow River's constantly recurring and very devastating floods; he failed in his mission, however, and, as punishment for his theft, was killed by Zhurong, the God of Fire. Gun's corpse turned into a yellow bear, or huangxiong, and jumped into a pool; a while later, a golden bear, alternatively said to be a golden dragon, emerged from the corpse's stomach and ascended into heaven, where the Yellow emperor instructed it to complete his father's work in taming the Yellow River's waters. That bear turned out to be Da Yu, who according to popular belief heroically controlled the floods and became the mythological forefather of China's Xia dynasty. Therefore, the bear has been prominently associated with legendary rulers and Chinese national foundation myths since the earliest times.
From the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) onwards, and probably even much earlier, bears have also been linked with military prowess, shamanism, and Immortality. As a corollary, it might be noted that the words for 'bear' and 'virility' are exact homonyms, pronounced xiong.
Bears were depicted in Chinese art at least as early as the Shang dynasty, as demonstrated by three jade bears excavated in 1976 from the tomb of Lady Fu Hao (died circa 1200 BC), Anyang, Henan Province; by two jade bears in the Grenville L. Winthrop Collection at the Harvard Art Museums (1943.50.308 and 1943.50.509); and by a rare marble sculpture seemingly depicting a kneeling human figure with a bear's head—sometimes said to be a feline head, that archaeologists from the Academia Sinica recovered from Xibeigang Tomb M1001 at Anyang in 1928, illustrated in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, exhibition catalogue, King Wu Ding and Lady Hao: Art and Culture of the Late Shang Dynasty, Taipei, 19 October 2012 - 19 February 2013, pp.230-231, no.RO1757. Perhaps the most famous Shang-dynasty work representing a bear, alternatively said to be a tiger, however, is the bronze ritual you wine vessel in the Sumitomo Collection, Kyoto, which was cast in the form of a beast either embracing or consuming a human figure. See R.Bagley, Shang Ritual Bronze Vessels in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, Washington D.C., 1987 p.123, fig.197. In the Western (206 BC–AD 8) and Eastern Han (AD 25–220) periods, both bronze and ceramic vessels often were outfitted with legs in the shape of bears; such vessel legs, generally in sets of three, portray the bears resting on their haunches and supporting the perimeter of the vessel base on their shoulders. Such Bronze Age representations typically present bears in formal, bilaterally symmetrical poses with the animals kneeling or resting on their haunches.
The depiction of jade bears continued after the Han dynasty; however, later carvings would seem to lack the stronger earlier characteristics of movement, as exemplified in a white jade recumbent bear, Tang dynasty, illustrated by Bai Wenyuan ed., Jade Wares Collected by Tianjin Museum, Beijing, 2012, no.117.
Bonhams. Tang's Hall of Precious, Hong Kong, 27 November 2018