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This small but exceptionally compelling gilt-bronze sculpture represents a plump bear seated on its haunches in a moment of repose as it scratches a spot immediately behind its right ear with its right forepaw. At peace with itself and with the world, the bear appears to be enjoying the moment and is wholly lacking in the ferocity that typifies most Han-dynasty representations of bears, tigers, and other wild beasts, marking this as an astonishingly rare and very naturalistic sculpture.
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, he was killed by Zhurong, the God of Fire. Gun’s corpse turned into a yellow bear, or huangxiong, and jumped into a pool; several years 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 its father’s work in taming the Yellow River’s waters. That bear turned out to be none other than Da Yu, who, according to popular belief, heroically controlled the floods and became the mythological forefather of China’s Xia dynasty. Thus, even if its exact symbolism has never explicitly been stated, the bear has been prominently associated with legendary rulers and national foundation myths since earliest times. From the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) onward, and probably even much earlier, bears have 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, not only in modern Mandarin Chinese, in which both are pronounced xiong, but also in ancient Chinese, a connection that likely speaks for itself in terms of symbolism.
Bears were depicted in Chinese art at least as early as the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–c. 1050 BC), as evinced by three jade bears excavated in 1976 from the tomb of Lady Fu Hao (died c. 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 exhibition catalogue, King Wu Ding and Lady Hao: Art and Culture of the Late Shang Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taiwan, 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, Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, Washington DC, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 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.
In fact, except for its relaxed attitude, the Ellsworth bear relates closely in style to a Western Han, gilt-bronze, bear-form vessel leg in the Harvard Art Museums’ Grenville L. Winthrop Collection (1943.53.92). The definition of the claws and the linear texturing of the surface to suggest fur are closely related, for example, as are the fine lines that articulate the ruff around the neck and the edges of the forelegs.
Even so, its relaxed posture and self-absorbed attitude distinguish the Ellsworth bear from most other Western Han representations of bears, whether vessel supports or free-standing sculptures. Whereas the Ellsworth bear has momentarily retreated from the world as it pleasurably relieves an itch and allows its tongue to loll out of its mouth, most Han bears are alert, even ferocious, their eyes wide open and looking outward in a piercing gaze, their mouths agape as if growling defensively or preparing to attack an opponent; they are interacting with the world, ready to challenge any being audacious enough to approach.
Though rare, the Ellsworth bear’s relaxed naturalism and momentary withdrawal from active involvement with the world in favor of self-absorption finds an antecedent in the asymmetrical pose, informal manner, and somewhat whimsical presentation of a small jade bear in Harvard’s Grenville L. Winthrop Collection (1943.50.310) that dates to the Warring States period (475 BC–221 BC). Despite the rarity of its pose and the relaxed manner of its presentation, the Ellsworth gilt-bronze bear thus nevertheless claims kinship to other late Bronze Age sculptures.
Formerly in the collection of Senator Hugh Scott, Washington, DC, a gilt-bronze bear virtually identical to the Ellsworth bear, and also assigned to the Western Han period, was featured in the exhibition Ancient Chinese Bronzes and Gilt Bronzes from the Wessen and Other Collections, Eskenazi, Ltd., London, 11-25 July 1980, no. 22. In fact, the Ellsworth and Senator Scott bears doubtless originally came from a set of four identical, gilt-bronze sculptures that served as mat weights. When reading, studying, or conversing outdoors with friends and colleagues, Chinese gentlemen of ancient times often sat on mats of woven bamboo strips, the four corners of the unfurled mat anchored with matching animal-shaped weights to prevent the mat from folding back on itself if animated by a breeze or a shift in the gentleman’s position. For a full discussion of mat weights, see Michelle C. Wang, et al. A Bronze Menagerie: Mat Weights of Early China, exh. cat. (Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum), 2006, where other bear-form weights of larger size in the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum, Boston, the Cleveland Museum of Art (formerly Stoclet Collection, Brussels), and the Saint Louis Art Museum are illustrated and discussed, pp. 86-93, nos. 4, 5, 6.
The Ellsworth and Senator Scott bears appear to have been hollow cast, after which the wavy lines suggesting fur and the short, straight lines defining the brows, neck ruff, foreleg edges, and short tail were incised. Once the chasing and chiseling had been completed, the sculptures were gilded, presumably employing the so-called heat-gilding technique, in which an amalgam of powered gold and mercury was applied to the surface, after which the sculpture was heated to a relatively low temperature, causing the mercury to evaporate and the gold to be fused evenly over the surface of the bronze. Lastly, the hollow interiors were filled with metal, probably lead, thereby adding sufficient weight for the small sculptures to serve effectively as weights.