In this post, I am going to discuss the development of shinnyoo (or shinnyuu, previously) しんにょう “to go forward.” In my long years of teaching I have seen that many students find the shape and meaning of a shinnyoo difficult to understand and learn. The odd shape is the product of a long history of development.
It came from two shapes that represented two meanings: a crossroad and a footprint/foot or step. When one reaches a crossroad, he has to decide which way to go, and when he steps over across the crossroad he is going forward. In oracle bone style writing (column B) either a crossroad or a footprint was often used. In bronze ware style writing (column C) both appeared, with a footprint at the bottom of the main element. In ten style writing (column D) a crossroad became three curbs and a foot moved to the left side, forming a single component having the meaning of “to go forward.”
After ancient writing became kanji, the shape that will be eventually called shinnyoo in Japan has gone through three more shapes. First, in Reisho style, the earliest style of kanji, a crossroad became three diagonal strokes. I do not have reisho style examples for each of the kanji. For the second shape, shown in column E, I am using images that were taken from The Kangxi Dictionary, originally published in 1716, with a Japanese annotation (Watanabe 1885.) In this publication, the shinnyoo consists of two short strokes and a hooked shape with a long extended stroke underneath (1E, 2E, 3E, 4E, and 5E.) This shape of shinnyoo is still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Then, In Japan, particularly after the National Language Reform in 1946, we write a shinnyoo with one short stroke, a wave-like line and a long extended stroke underneath. That is the third shape. The second shape is called kyuujitai (old style) and the third shape is called shinjitai (new style). In 2010, the Japanese government guideline revived the second shape in some kanji with a shinnyoo as “permissible.”
Now, back to the first table above, did you notice something odd about the kanji 徒 (5F) ? The two elements in this kanji for “on foot” — crossroad and step — did not merge into a shinnyoo. So, I got curious and looked up the Kangxi Dictionary. It noted that the shape in (5E), which had a shinnyoo, was the older form of 徒 (5F). This tells us that the modern kanji form 徒 went back to ten style (5D), skipping over the reisho style (5E.) Another twist in our shinnyoo story.
In the long history of ancient writing of Chinese characters to the present-day Japanese kanji, some shapes disappeared and some did not. When ancient creators of writing came up with the idea of combining existing shapes that had their own meanings into a new shape with a new meaning, it became possible to form an enormous number of new writing. For that reason, a majority of the old written forms disappeared, except in dictionaries, and what survived are what we use in the modern writing.
References: Akai (1985); Shirakawa (2003); Watanabe (1885); Williams (2010)