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Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Why are the 'Three Wise Monkeys' Usually APES?

The three wise monkeys (Japanese: , san'en or sanzaru, or , sanbiki no saru, literally "three monkeys"), sometimes called the three mystic apes,[1] are a pictorial maxim. Together they embody the proverbial principle to "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil".[2] The three monkeys are Mizaru, covering his eyes, who sees no evil; Kikazaru, covering his ears, who hears no evil; and Iwazaru, covering his mouth, who speaks no evil. Sometimes there is a fourth monkey depicted with the three others; the last one, Shizaru, symbolizes the principle of "do no evil". He may be shown crossing his arms.
There are various meanings ascribed to the monkeys and the proverb including associations with being of good mind, speech and action. In the Western world the phrase is often used to refer to those who deal with impropriety by turning a blind eye.[3]
In English, the monkeys' names are often given as Mizaru,[4] Mikazaru,[5] and Mazaru,[6] but the last two names were corrupted from the Japanese originals.[7][8]
In Chinese, a similar phrase exists in the Analects of Confucius from 2nd to 4th century B.C.: "Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety" (非禮勿視, 非禮勿聽, 非禮勿言, 非禮勿動).[9] It may be that this phrase was shortened and simplified after it was brought into Japan.
Though the teaching had nothing to do with monkeys, the concept of the three monkeys originated from a simple play on words. The saying in Japanese is "mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru" (, , , literally "don't see, don't hear, don't speak". However, -zaru, an archaic negative verb conjugation, is pronounced the same as zaru, the vocalized form of saru (?), "monkey", so the saying can also be interpreted as the names of three monkeys.
It is also possible that the three monkeys came from a more central root than a play on words.[contradiction] The shrine at Nikko is a Shinto shrine, and the monkey is an extremely important being in the Shinto religion.[citation needed] The monkey is believed to be the messenger of the Hie Shinto shrines, which also have connections with Tendai Buddhism. There are even important festivals that are celebrated during the year of the Monkey (occurring every twelve years) and a special festival is celebrated every sixteenth year of the Kōshin.
"The Three Mystic Apes" (Sambiki Saru) were described as "the attendants of Saruta Hito no Mikoto or Kōshin, the God of the Roads".[10] The Kōshin festival was held on the 60th day of the calendar. It has been suggested that during the Kōshin festival, according to old beliefs, one’s bad deeds might be reported to heaven "unless avoidance actions were taken…." It has been theorized that the three Mystic Apes, Not Seeing, Hearing, or Speaking, may have been the "things that one has done wrong in the last 59 days."
According to other accounts, the monkeys caused the Sanshi and Ten-Tei not to see, say or hear the bad deeds of a person. The Sanshi (三尸?) are three worms living in everyone's body. The Sanshi keep track of the good deeds and particularly the bad deeds of the person they inhabit. Every 60 days, on the night called Kōshin-Machi (庚申待?), if the person sleeps, the Sanshi will leave the body and go to Ten-Tei (天帝?), the Heavenly God, to report about the deeds of that person. Ten-Tei will then decide to punish bad people, making them ill, shortening their time alive, and in extreme cases putting an end to their lives. Those believers of Kōshin who have reason to fear will try to stay awake during Kōshin nights. This is the only way to prevent the Sanshi from leaving their body and reporting to Ten-Tei.
An ancient representation of the 'no see, no hear, no say, no do' can be found in four golden figurines in the Zelnik Istvan Southeast Asian Gold Museum. These golden statues date from the 6th to 8th century. The figures look like tribal human people with not very precise body carvings and strong phallic symbols.[11] This set indicates that the philosophy comes from very ancient roots.


  • Titelman, Gregory Y. (2000). Random House Dictionary of America's Popular Proverbs and Sayings (Second Edition ed.). New York: Random House. ISBN 0-375-70584-8.
  • Archer Taylor, “Audi, Vidi, Tace” and the three monkeys
  • A. W. Smith, Folklore, Vol. 104, No. ½ pp 144–150 ‘On the Ambiguity of the Three Wise Monkeys’

 External links

At first the representations of the three monkeys were clearly recognisable Japanese macaques ("Snow monkeys") and this included the clear representation of their stumpy tails.

However, that is not the way they are most commonly known. They are most commonly represented as small APES often resembling chimpanzees but usually more ambiguously suggesting the features of both chiomps and orangutans.

Since there are still reports of smallish apelike creatures on Japan under the common term "Hibagon" and we have seen reporesentations of them before on this blog, it seems more likely that the common representation of the three wise monkeys actually ARE representations of three wise apes, the Japanese native apes that seem to be related to the Smaller kind of Chinese Yeren and thence to the fossil Orangutans known to have existed in China

Illustration of the Chinese Yeren as an orangutan-like creature
 as done by R. W. Benjamin on the Unknown Creatures site

Xing-Xing or similar ape, wood carving from Taiwan,
the term Xing-Xing (Shing-Shing) is in general casual use in the Orient.
Sculpture of an obvious orangutan located at Hong Kong

Small "See No Evil (etc) figurines like these come from the Burmese/Thailand border country and they are referred to under the name of the local Yeti equivalent, the Tok. The bare remnants of a "Monkey" face can be made out in the gilded example below.

"King Louis" from the Disney version of The Jungle Book, a representation of the Olu-Bandar under the title "King of the Monkeys". The character was introduced by Bill Peet while he was working on the script and nobody seems to know where he came by this information: there is such a creature alleged in the Assam and Heuvelmans refers it to the "Mainland Orangutan" category. There was not such a creature mentioned in Kipling's original Jungle Book with Mowgli.

Two small votive orangutan figurines in brass from Tibet, listed for sale on Ebay.

One of the Yeti stamps from Bhutan that bears a distinct resemblance to a male (Sumatan) Orangutan. Similar orangutan like creatures are depicted in midieval Persian miniature paintings.

Above are the two types of stamp-Yetis done to the same scale. Yes, the bigger one has a tail attributed to it, but that part is never actually reported on live individuals that are supposedly sighted. Below are two depictions of the two types pasted together at the same scale.

Following is the article on Chinese Yerens from George Eberhart's Mysterious Creatures (2002) Although there are different kinds of creatures called by the same names Yeti and Yeren, Bernard Heuvelmans counts the two as equivalent and related concept and indeed the main types (discounting the local Wild Men) are the larger and smaller kinds just indicated above. The same types also continue on Southward. The general range in heights as being 4 to 10 feet tall holds for both places (discounting the even larger sizes) and I draw attention to the statement "Color varies from black in Yunnan provence to white in Tibet and reddish-brown in Hubei Provence"--That's right people, the big Yetis in Tibet ARE said to be white! {actually they are usually shades of gry or "Grizzly" and white commonly. This is the Gigantopithecus type that would be the same as the North American Sasquatch). And the smaller reddish-brown one in Nepal is the one the press has taken to calling "the Yeti": it is most likely a kind of orangutan derived from the Chinese "fossil Pongo" of the Pleistocee.

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