And I wanted to ask again why the women in our family have a split nail on our left little toe. Whenever we asked our parents about it, they would glance at each other, embarrassed. I think I’ve heard one of them say, “She didn’t get away.” I made up that we are descended from an ancestress who stubbed her toe and fell when running from a rapist. I wanted to ask my mother if I had guessed right.Maxine Hong-Kingston, The Woman Warrior
I remember sitting in bed at night reading this passage from Maxine Hong-Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior” a month ago and realizing with a jolt that I knew exactly what she was talking about. Overcome with excitement, I shouted “I have this! THIS!!” all the while swatting at my bewildered husband with the phone I was reading my kindle book from.
I had never heard of split pinky toenails mentioned before in any context up to this point. I thought it was just some weird, annoying thing my mom and I both have. Yet here, in this book, was someone specifically mentioning others having it and in terms of ancestral folklore!
Did having a “split nail” on one’s pinky toe mean something profound? Is this an Asian thing I was a part of? Burning with curiosity, I started to dig, wondering what I would find.
What is it?
Split pinky toenail, also known as “double toenail, crocus toenail, compound toenail, accessory toenail, or sixth toenail” happens when there’s a little “split” or nub of excess formation that veers off from the main nail area. Degrees in separation of the wayward “accessory” range from itty bits to the split of nearly half of the nail itself.
Theories on the causes of this anomaly range from malnourishment, childhood accidents, pressure on the foot during birth, and the wearing of uncomfortable shoes (everything from steel-toed work boots to women’s high heels). The most common reasoning has to do with genetics (hereditary dysplasia).
Initially, split pinky toes used to be thought of as uncommon and historically associated with the Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group in China (out of 56!). Around a quarter of Koreans are said to have it and link the trait to being of Mongolian descent. However, unlike the blue “Mongolian Spot,” which studies haven proven to occur in higher instances in Asians, there is no data to support the split pinky toe as distinctively a Han genetic trait. There is data to show that the oddity occurs globally.
A study by German Prof. Dr. Eckart Haneke, published in 2016 by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, reviewed thirteen years’ worth of photos of patients’ feet from his dermatology clinic. Among his 58 patients, he found evidence that “patients with double little toenails were seen in all countries visited, irrespective of skin complexion and race.” The patients came from all backgrounds (Mexican, German, Norwegian, Turkish, etc), with only one being of Han Chinese descent. Dr. Haneke concluded that this “double accessory” was in fact a common attribute although undiagnosed in many and rarely reported. He theorized most people will never seek consultation on it, but, like me, just deal. Some, however, do seek surgical relief in more painful instances.
In addition, any look into a basic search engine will pull up forums showing people from all over the world share this idiosyncrasy. Therefore, my main question is if split pinky toes are a common characteristic among other nations and races, then why do some Han Chinese feel strongly possessive about it?
Origin Stories of the “Han Toenail”
I found two specific legends from Chinese history cited repeatedly by Chinese netizens. While there are other variations, these two tales seemed to be the most prevalent. Much like the passage I mentioned earlier from Maxine Hong-Kingston’s book, each legend centers on the violence of forced relocation and the subsequent inter-generational trauma; both of which ultimately manifest as symbolic “double petal nails” (关于小脚趾两瓣趾甲的传说) on the pinky toes of their descendants.
1. The Qiang Nomads’ Wronged Ancestress
During the reign of Huangdi 黃帝, the mythical Yellow Emporer (2697–2598 BCE, not to be confused with actual Emperor Qinshihuangdi 秦始皇帝 221-10 BCE), only two types of people were said to reside in what is now considered China: the established Henan folk, descendants of the Yellow Emperor, and the nomadic Qiang. The Henan people prospered greatly, farming the fertile plains within the heart of the country (the cradle of Chinese civilization) and developing extensive cities.
The Qiang, on the other hand, were shepherds, an ancient tribe now considered to be the founders of the modern Qiang and Tibetan people. They were said to have been descended from the Yan Emperor, the mythical “Flame Emperor,” that was previously defeated by the Henan people’s Yellow Emperor.
This brutal story tells of how cruel ruler Yin Wang of the Henan people led an attack on the Qiang. They abducted a beautiful Qiang woman, and when she tried to escape, Yin Wang stabbed her in her stomach.
This Qiang woman later gave birth to two children with “scars” on their smallest toes. Yin Wang had the children adopted into Henan society. The children’s descendants would forever continue to bear the scars of this poor Qiang woman as “double nails” on their pinky toes.
2. The Hongtong Big Locust Tree Immigrants 洪洞大槐樹移民
“Who is under the ancient locust, check the nail shape of the little toes on both feet.” 一副是「誰是古槐底下人，雙足小趾驗甲形Couplet found in the ancestor worship hall at Dahuaishu Park
The second, and most popular, legend I found on Chinese chat groups has to do with the involuntary relocation of the Han people from Shanxi Province to the Southeast, Central Plains and other then uninhabited regions during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 ACE).
During this era, China’s population plummeted after years of successive wars and famine. Zhu Yuanzhang, also known as Emperor Hongwu the founder of the Ming Dynasty, and his son, Zhu Di, decided to move vast numbers of Han Chinese from more densely populated areas to reclaim and rebuild land where the nation was lacking subjects.
Despite offering an immigration resettlement fee, most of the people were unwilling to emigrate. This story focuses on one particular batch of stubborn immigrants from Hongdong County in Shanxi. These unhappy villagers were amassed under the largest locust tree in town before setting off. The story takes two different turns after this point.
The first version holds that the government soldiers, fearing deserters en route, tied everyone up and slashed each person’s pinky toe for identification. Henceforth, all with inherited split pinky toenails are said to be the descendants of those immigrants.
The second version states the immigrants were so reluctant to leave their hometown, they cut gaps in their little toenails themselves. The reasoning being that they would never forget their hometown with this “double petal armor.” Furthermore, if there were cracks or splits on little toenails in the future, then they would all be able to recognize their Han kin one day under their beloved big locust tree.
This legend birthed a Shanxi folksong (listen to it here):
After crossing the Yellow River and uphill, 過了黃河上了坡，
Do not want to move one step three times. 一步三回不想挪。
Where are my ancestors? 問我祖先在哪裡？
Old stork nest under the big locust tree. 大槐樹下老鸛窩。
So where do people have toes? 那麼哪裡的人會有跰趾？
That’s right, Shanxi people are most likely to be lame. 沒錯，山西人最有可能是跰趾
A 2005 study by Bian Jianchao, an associate professor at the School of Public Health of Fudan University, attempted to quantify the genetic prevalence of “valvular nails” among the Chinese. They found that the closer people lived to Shanxi province, the greater the likelihood that they would have split pink toenails (see map below).
Fujian ( 37.80%)
A sign of Pure-Blooded Han-ness?
Nope, definitely not. It’s neither a signal of the “High Ancestry Han” (高血汉族) wording I’ve seen thrown around to distinguish Han people from the so-called “inferior barbarians of the north,” nor is it even a marker of being Asian. As I mentioned earlier, while having split pinky toenails was once thought to be solely a Chinese trait, this claim is unsubstantiated as it’s found in people from all races and in all regions of the globe. Split pinky toenails seem to be just a benign, normal (albeit peculiar) genetic mutation.
It would be fascinating if someone did a study to see if different ethnic groups do have higher instances of it. In the meantime, I’ll continue to happily do away with mine whenever it reappears.
- Bradley Mayhew, Korina Miller, Alex English: South-West China. 2002. Northern Síchuan – Around Wénchuan, page 517.
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