You've probably seen them: The 3 Wise Monkeys representing the proverb:

"See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil."

But while the symbolism seems fairly clear, what's the connection between the three monkeys and evil?

The three Wise Monkeys and their paradoxical symbolism

While it's a relatively modern adage in the West, in the East, where it originated, this proverb and its physical representation date back to ancient times. Here's an overview of why the three wise monkeys have been associated with this proverb and its meaning.

What do the three Wise Monkeys symbolize?

A cultural symbol originating from Japan, the three Wise Monkeys - one covering its eyes, another its ears, and the third its mouth - are known as Mizaru, Kikazaru, and Iwazaru. They symbolize the proverbial adage:

"See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil."

Interestingly, their Japanese names are also a play on words.

In Japanese, the proverb translates to

"mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru", which means "see not, hear not, speak not."

The suffix -zu or -zaru is commonly used to negate a verb or express its opposite meaning. However, the suffix -zaru can also be the modified word for saru, which means monkey in Japanese, explaining why the proverb is illustrated with images of monkeys.

The three Wise Monkeys represent the moral message of not seeing, hearing, or saying anything evil, as well as being morally upright in the face of evil. However, the proverb is sometimes used sarcastically to refer to those who turn a blind eye to something morally or legally reprehensible. As if by pretending not to see the wrongful act, they would not be held accountable.

Oriental and Occidental views of the three Wise Monkeys

It's interesting to note that the Eastern and Western perspectives on the symbolism of the three Wise Monkeys are entirely opposite.

In the East, the image serves as a reminder to follow a righteous moral path by avoiding evil in all its forms. The three monkeys are a positive symbol reminding one to be pure and virtuous by avoiding negative and destructive behaviors. Even Mahatma Gandhi, known for having very few possessions, owned a small figurine of the three Wise Monkeys. He appreciated the lesson represented by this symbol, namely to avoid evil by all means if one wishes to remain pure and virtuous.

However, in the West, this symbol is used in an entirely different manner. Here, the image of the three Wise Monkeys represents turning a blind eye to something morally or legally reprehensible. For example, you might notice something wrong happening but decide to completely ignore it in order to avoid being held accountable and assuming responsibility.

This is not a virtuous way of living and, as a wise person once said,

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Thus, in the Western context, the three Wise Monkeys represent the actions we take that allow evil to exist.

This symbolism of the three Wise Monkeys also aligns with other ancient proverbs, such as this Turkish proverb:

"To live in peace, one must be blind, deaf, and mute."

or this Latin phrase:

"Audi, vide, tace, si vis vivere in pace", which translates to "Listen, see, but be silent if you want to live in peace."

This is the perfect example of how a symbol can mean completely different things depending on the context. The three Wise Monkeys can be either positive or negative depending on whether one takes an Eastern or Western perspective.

From India to Japan, from Europe to America

The proverb of the three Wise Monkeys predates its physical representation. It originated in ancient China, then found its animal representation in Japan, before becoming popular in the West.

During China's Warring States period, between 475 and 221 BCE, the Analects of Confucius contained the following proverb:

"Do not look at what is contrary to propriety; do not listen to what is contrary to propriety; do not speak what is contrary to propriety; do not make movements contrary to propriety."

However, the motif of the three monkeys likely came to China from India via the Silk Road (an ancient trade route connecting the East to the West) and eventually to Japan in the 8th century. During the Tokugawa period, also known as the Edo period, lasting from 1603 to 1867, the three monkeys were depicted in Buddhist sculptures in Japan.

At the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, Japan, an eight-panel sculpture depicts the code of conduct developed by Confucius. One of the panels depicts the three Wise Monkeys, symbolizing the principle of not seeing, not hearing, and not speaking evil.

It was during the Meiji era, from 1867 to 1912, that the sculpture became known in the West, inspiring the saying "See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil".

In the 1900s, small statues of the three Wise Monkeys became popular in Great Britain as good luck charms, particularly among soldiers in World War I. Some folklore experts associate the symbolism of the three Wise Monkeys with proverbs from various cultures. It has also been compared to the Yorkshire motto, "Hear all, see all, say now," known since the late Middle Ages.

The three Wise Monkeys in modern culture

In our time, the three Wise Monkeys still embody the proverb they originally represented, but different meanings are attributed to them.

The three Wise Monkeys on social media

The three Wise Monkeys are sometimes used as emojis, but they are often used playfully, sometimes even unrelated to their original meaning. In fact, they are often used to express feelings of joy, surprise, embarrassment, etc.

The "see-no-evil monkey" emoji is commonly used to convey "I can't believe what I'm seeing." Conversely, the "hear-no-evil monkey" emoji suggests that people hear things they don't want to hear. The "say-no-evil monkey" emoji can also be used to express the reaction of someone who has said the wrong thing in the wrong situation.

Their significance in popular culture

Images of the three Wise Monkeys are sometimes printed on t-shirts, woven into sweaters, or depicted as wooden, plastic, or ceramic figurines. They also appear in advertisements in the press and on postcards to convey a more meaningful message.

In a 2015 horror short film, "Three Wise Monkeys," the character in the story receives a sculpture of the three monkeys as a sign. Three monkeys are depicted in the courtroom scene in the film "Planet of the Apes" (1968).

In England, they were the subject of a children's fable in the Hiccup Theater, where actors in monkey costumes played the role. The fable told the story of a baby monkey being kidnapped and the efforts of the three monkeys to save him.

FAQs about the three Wise Monkeys

1. What do the three monkeys represent?

They represent the concept of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

2. Who are the three Wise Monkeys?

In the Japanese proverb, the monkeys are Mizaru, Kikazaru, and Iwazaru.

3. What message do the three Wise Monkeys convey?

The message is that we must protect ourselves by not letting evil enter our sight, not letting bad words enter our ears, and finally not speaking bad words and not having bad thoughts. In the West, however, the proverb "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" means to ignore or turn a blind eye to something evil.

Overview of the Three Monkeys

Throughout history, animals have been used as symbols for proverbs, and monkeys are proverbially considered a type of intelligent creature.

The three Wise Monkeys recall the Buddhist teaching that if we see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil, we will be spared from evil. Their moral message remains relevant, and their depiction is one of the most popular motifs worldwide.

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