An Asian Bestiary | Bear
Catalog No: 70 / 35
Ainu people traditionally revered the brown bear (Ursus arctos), a spiritual partner in their hunting pursuits and a focus of their ritual life. In mid-winter, Ainu communities performed the iomante, “to send back the spirit.” A bear that had been captured as a cub and raised in the village was ritually smothered as a first step in releasing the bear’s soul to the realm of forest spirits where the grateful bear would shower praise on its Ainu hosts. Thus celebrated, bears would return to the forest the following spring with gifts of meat and hide. Cloth decorations like these adorn the head of the sacrificed bear.

Ainu traditionally lived on Hokkaido in the far north of Japan and on Sakhalin Island and the Kuril Islands in the Russian Federation. Today, Ainu live all over Japan and many Ainu work to preserve their culture, language, and handicrafts. Some Ainu are active in Japanese politics.
Catalog No: 70 / 2846
Carved from reindeer antler, this object may have been used as a charm by an inland Koryak hunter on a dangerous and potentially life-threatening hunt, or it may have been carved to barter for tobacco and other goods from Russian traders. At the time that this piece was made, Koryak hunters celebrated the bear hunt with dances and festivals, which included a “home-sending” ceremony, similar to the Ainu iomante bear ceremony. Today, the work of virtuoso Koryak carvers appears in art galleries and smaller pieces are sold as souvenirs.
Catalog No: 70 /13302
This Chinese painting depicts circus performers – playing instruments, spinning plates, and watching a handler training a performing bear who stands on its hind legs while its hands are held in restraints. The bear appears in this scene as a domesticated and playful, clownish figure.

The painting is a Nianhua widely purchased in late 19th century China as bright and happy decorations to welcome in the New Year. Typically, Nianhua were more colorful than classic Chinese paintings and favored popular everyday subjects – making them accessible and attractive to the average Chinese household.
Catalog No: 70 /10898
This papier-mâché mask depicting a bear was probably used in the masked ritual dramas performed in Tibetan monasteries in both Tibet and China, where Berthold Laufer purchased this example around 1900.
If the format of any material on the website interferes with your ability to access that material, please contact us at