Small, exquisitely carved and realistically rendered jade animals were made from the Han dynasty until the early Qing dynasty. They form an important group made to be treasured and enjoyed. As noted by Jessica Rawson, very few of these carvings were buried in tombs, hence making the dating of many pieces almost impossible, judging wether such a piece was made as an early example or was made as a copy in subsequent periods. We know that at least from the Song period, copying was encouraged, fuelled by the resurgence of a more general interest in antiquity, see Jessica Rawson and John Ayers, Chinese Jade throughout the Ages, London, 1975, pp. 14-17. Compilations on ancient jades and bronzes such as the Kaogu tu by Lu Dalin of 1057, and the Gu yu tu by Ju Dejun of 1341, provided information on antiquities ranging from archaic bronzes and jades to sculpure from which designs could be derived.
The present carving of a winged mythical creature resembling a bear seems to have a connection with the mythical winged creatures of the spirit world inhabiting the traditions of jade and stone carvings of the Han and subsequent Six Dynasties period. From at least the Han dynasty, jade was firmly associated with immortality, was connected with beliefs in spirits, omens and immortals. Winged creatures of animal and human form inhabited the universe of the Han and Six Dynasties period, and were an integral part of the decorative repertory of the period. Winged creatures were similarly carved in jade, forming a small but distinct group. Among the rare examples known is a group of jade carvings including a bird, a bear, mythical beasts and a winged horse with a rider found in the tomb of the Western Han emperor Yuandi (r. 48-33 BC) at Xianyang near present-day Xian, published in Zhongguo yuqi quanji, vol. 3, Shijiazhuang, 1991-1993, nos. 147, 150 and 151, a winged feline dated to the Six Dynasties period, illustrated in Jessica Rawson and John Ayers, Chinese Jade throughout the Ages, London, 1975, cat. nos. 178-196, and a powerfully carved yellow jade figure of a winged beast, formerly in the collection of Xu Hanqing, sold Sotheby's Hong Kong, 6th April 2016, lot 3025.
The present jade figure closely resembles a bear but with wings and a horn on its head. While several small jade figures of bears are known, compare the jade bear from the Hotung Collection, illustrated in Jessica Rawson, Chinese Jade. From the Neolithic to the Qing, London, 1995, p. 359, cat. no. 26:3, or a small figure of a jade bear in the British Museum collection, ibid., p. 350, fig. 1, the present jade carving interestingly shares the wings and horn with a flat calcified jade carving of a bear, recently discovered in the tomb of the Marquis of Haihun (d. 59 BC) near Nanchang in Jiangxi province, published in Kaogu, 2016.7, p. 59, fig. 47 (Fig. 1).
While the present winged creature has a close affinity with these Han and Six Dynasties jades, the carving is visibly softer, more playful revealing in points of detail an awareness of and respect for the conventions of the past while adding a touch of individuality. While there is a good reason to date the present jade figure of a winged mythical beast to the Han period, it cannot be assigned to the Han period unconditionally.