How Many Digits Does a Dragon Have?
Horns on the forehead, claws, and an imposing and graceful manner of flying in the sky have become unwavering features of a dragon in the minds of the Chinese. However, it was a long and gradual process of variation and evolvement to finally form the concept of a dragon that is widely acknowledged by the Chinese today, especially changes in its claws. Crafted more than 5,000 years ago, the jade dragon unearthed from a historical Hongshan Culture site, is the earliest dragon- shaped jade artifact discovered in China. With a head resembling a wild boar, the dragon had no legs or claws. During the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC), the image of a dragon changed drastically. It now had a pair of forelimbs and claws, and in the late Shang, two horns were added to the dragon. The dragon of this period had the ability not only to crawl, but also to run and fly, implying that it was detached from its original animal and had become a divine creature connecting Heaven and Earth. After the Shang, the image of a dragon with feet, horns and claws was fixed, and as time went by, the number of digits for claws increased. For instance, on a Warring States Period (475–221 BC) silk painting housed in the Hunan Provincial Museum, the dragon has two front claws, with two digits on each claw, while in a Jin Dynasty (266–420 AD) painting; the dragon has four legs, each with a claw and three digits. When it came to the Tang Dynasty (618–907), dragons uniformly had four legs and three claw fingers.
Until the Song Dynasty (960–1279), the dragon image became more uniform and regulated: with four legs and four claw digits. During the reign of the Zezong Emperor, the court decreed that commoners were forbidden to use image of dragon freely in any way. And although high-ranking officials were exempted from the strict exertion of the order, they could only have crawling dragon, not a flying one.
During the Yuan Dynasty (1271– 1368), the court monopolized the use of dragon and anyone who was not from the royal family and disobeyed the command would be condemned. The court also gave an official definition of dragon: with two horns and five claw digits. However, the Yuan subjects smartly exploited the loophole in the definition: if it had three or four digits, it could not be called a dragon, so they could use a “non- dragon” image freely and without fear of consequence.
Later, in portraits of the Ming ( 1368– 1644) and Qing (1644–1912)emperors, dragon images all have two horns and five digits.