In this post, I am going to discuss the four kanji 止, 歩, 正 and 政 that share the same origin of a footprint or step.
A. The kanji 止”stop” and 歩 “walk” from a footprint
Our feet are now molded into a shape that fits in a shoe like in image (1), but we can easily imagine that a big foot was skewed more outward to help with strenuous walking in the ancient times.
Image (2) is the bronze ware style writing for a footstep that became 止 “to halt one’s steps” or “to stop.” It had a prominent big toe on the top right along with two other toes and the upper part of the sole. Image (3) is ten-style writing, which became the kanji (4).
In walking, one puts forward the right foot and the left foot alternately. That is what makes up the kanji 歩 for “walk” or a “step.” Image (5) is the bronze ware style, with a left foot at the top and a right foot at the bottom. How can we tell which is which? Well, where the two lines cross is the big toe. The top and the bottom in ten-style writing (6) still maintain the mirror image of each other. Wben they became the kanji 歩 (7) the bottom took the shape of the kanji 少. (The kanji 少 “little” came from a different origin.)
B. The kanji 正 “just” and 政 “to govern”
The kanji 正 “right/just” also contained a footprint. The oracle bone style (8) had a box shape at the top, which represented a wall surrounding a town, and a footprint at the bottom. Together they showed an army advancing into a town to conquer. In the bronze ware style writing (9), the town wall became a big dot above a foot. In both (8) and (9), the writing meant “just” because a conqueror was always just. Hmm… It makes one pause a little, doesn’t it. But we need to look at ancient writing from the point of view of the people for which the writing was created. Ancient Chinese writing started as a way for a ruler to communicate with the gods. The ten-style writing is (10) and the kanji is (11.)
The kanji 政 means “to govern” or “politics.” The left side is 正 ”just” and the right side is the bushu shape 攵 called bokuzukuri. The bushu bokuzukuri came from a hand holding a stick and meant “to take an action.” In (12) on the right side, there is a stick and a hand (it looks like a cross here). In bronze ware style (13) the stick is placed above a hand. On the left side the line for a town wall is thicker than the rest. In ten-style (14) the shape assumes an aesthetically pleasing balance. When it became a kanji, it became more compact with straight lines as in (15).
According to Shirakawa (2004), the original meaning of 政 “to govern; politics” was “act of imposing a levy” because getting levies from the conquered area was just. To govern was all about taxation… Hmmm.
When the ancient writing became kanji, writing became just a means of communication. By that time the knowledge of origins of the kanji had been lost. The kanji 正 just had the meaning of “just; right” and the kanji 政 had just the meaning of “to do the right thing.” We can hope that to govern or to engage in politics is about doing the just in our times. [December 28, 2013]
References: Akai (1985); Shirakawa (2004); and Williams (2010)
[Notes on January 8, 2016] This was one of the first postings two years ago. Since then there have been a number of postings on kanji that directly reflected the image of a footprint, including six postings entitled “One Foot at a Time” and four postings entitled “A Hand an Leg – Bushu ninnyo.” In order to view a posting that is more than 6 months old such as those, please click the Kanji Etymology – Previous Posts link, which lists all the postings in the past with the links. Thank you very much. Noriko