Chinese Dragon claws

There are a variety of interpretations to explain the number of claws that a Dragon might have. I have pulled together a few here. Again, if you know more then please let me know.

Chinese Dragons have five claws on each foot while Indonesian or Korean dragons have four, and Japanese dragons have three. To explain this phenomenon, Chinese legend states that all Imperial dragons originated in China, and the further away from China a Dragon went the fewer claws it had. Dragons only exist in China, Korea, Indonesia, and Japan because if they travelled further they would have no claws to continue. The Japanese legend has a story similar to the Chinese one, namely that dragons originated in Japan, and the further they travelled the more claws they grew and as a result, if they went too far they would have too many claws to continue to walk properly.

Blue Sky Dragon - detail - unknown
Blue Sky Dragon – detail – unknown

Official interpretation within China was that five claw Dragons are reserved for emperors (five is the holy number i.e. there are five elements). Four claw Dragons are reserved for kings, princes and certain high rank officials. Three claw Dragons are used by the merchant class. Since Korea and other nations only held the title of king (with respect to the emperor in China), they are only allowed to use four claw Dragons. Improper use of claw number is considered a sign of rebellion, and could be punished heavily such as through the execution of a whole clan.

Five-clawed Imperial Yellow Dragon
Five-clawed Imperial Yellow Dragon

Another interpretation according to several sources, including historical official documents, is that ordinary Chinese dragons had four toes, but the Imperial Dragon had five. It was a capital offence for anyone, other than the emperor, his blood relatives, and the very few officials who were granted such an extraordinary privilege by the emperor – to use the five-clawed dragon motif.

Korean sources seem to oppose this theory, as the Imperial dragon in Gyeongbok Palace has seven claws, implying its superiority over the inferior Chinese Dragon. Of course, this Dragon image is hidden in the rafters of the palace and is not entirely in view, even to those who know it is there, suggesting that while the ancient Koreans viewed it as superior, they also knew that it would be offensive to the Imperial Chinese Court.

Han Dynasty Dragon sculpture
Han Dynasty Dragon sculpture

The Han style Dragon is also 3 clawed, which may explain how the 3 clawed dragon came to Japan during the Tang or pre-Tang period.

Please note: The Calligraphy for Dragon, along with the other Zodiac Animals is available on the link here.

The next blog post explores the characteristics of a Dragon that you should consider while Painting Chinese Dragons.

Happy Dragon painting,


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