How Many Dig­its Does a Dragon Have?

China Scenic - - Front Page -

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.

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