Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil: Why Monkeys?

Fellow Teeming Millions,
I was playing a video game last night that involved moving little statuettes of the well-known trio, once again rendered as monkeys. Every time I’ve seen the embodiment of the saying - in cartoons, in books, on those weird little figurines my grandma had on her mantle - they’ve always been monkeys. Where does this saying come from, and why qre monkeys so wary of eeeevil?

I was going to reply with a great answer about how the Japanese version of the phrase and their word for monkey were related, but after doing a little web checking, it turns out I was wrong.


Similar sites return equivalent explanations.

Slight nitpick, it’s the Nikko-Toshogu shrine. Here are some pictures of the monkeys of Nikko-Toshogu.

There’s another hypothese that the monkeys originated from Confucius’ Analects, more precicely, Book XII:

Of course, there are no monkeys and four, not three, admonitions. However, there are representations of the four wise monkeys. The following is a terrible link, but it’s the only image I could find. Four monkeys. Note that most people who encounter the rarer four monkeys assume the fourth one was added later. If you go with the Confucius theory, he was actually removed. Here’s a Japanese page that also has a picture of the four monkey

Crap, replied too soon. Of course, the last post should end with “four monkeys.” With an ‘s’ and a period.

I wanted to add that the last Japanese link makes an interesting observation, apparently taken, with the illustrations, from a book titled Sekai no San-en (“The Three Wise Monkeys of the World”). He notes that in Europe, two of the monkeys are shown as listening and watching, while the last one is as in the Asian representations. This corresponds to a Latin saying: Audi, vide, tace, si vis vivere in pace (Listen, watch, and shut up if you want to live in peace.) This guy discusses it in a bit more detail:

I got a gift set of three, called “See Monkey”, “Hear Monkey” and “Speak Monkey”. It’s very nice - heavy plastic with a nice sheen that looks sort of wood-like, a deep crimson brown. They live on my office window sill.

They look like chimpanzees to me. Certainly no tails. So these appear to be apes. Nothing in the gift set says anything about them being apes instead of monkeys.

Does anybody know how to tell monkeys from apes, besides monkeys having tails and apes not? Or why apes might be substituted?

There are four general kinds of apes–gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and gibbons. Actually five kinds if you want to include humans, which is increasingly justified by fossil and genetic data. Though humans look superficially quite different from the other four, all five types share many qualities not shared by monkeys.

[li]Erect or semi-erect posture. Even though non-human apes don’t normally stand and walk erect, their postures generally tend toward uprightness…in the way the sit, move, and use their hands. Monkeys, on the other hand, are built so that they run on all fours like a dog, with their bodies parallel to the ground. This difference is reflected in the skull structure, in how and where the spinal chord goes through to join the brain.[/li]
[li]Dentition…except for size and placement, all five higher primates have similar teeth, right down to the number and placement of “cusps” on the molars.[/li]
[li]Large size. Humans and non-human apes are the largest primates (except the gibbon).[/li]
[li]At least limited tool use.[/li]
[li]For chimpanzees and humans, war and gang fights. [/li]
[li]Taillessness. I have actually seen one source that said apes had “very short tails”, but that was a Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia, so what do you expect.[/li]

In casual usage, people often use “monkey” to mean any non-human primate including apes, but that’s technically incorrect. Presumably that’s how you get chimpanzees showing up in place of monkeys in “three monkeys” statues.

I just wanted to add that in a context where the “monkey” is supposed to represent a human attribute or behavior, one might well substitute a chimp because it looks so much more like a human being. If you look at higher nonhuman apes and monkeys long enough, you find that the latter just don’t look very much like us, in comparison with apes.

I get the see no,speak no,hear no evil.What does the 4th monkey represent?

A very cold day?

Do no evil.

Hence his lack of popularity. :smiley:

No, but it recalls that wonderful song:

Oh, the monkeys have no tails in Zamboanga,
Tne monkeys have no tails,
They were bitten off by whales,
The monkeys have no tails in Zamboanga.

Hope that helps explain things. :smiley:

Have No Fun.

My favorite representation of the “See no evil” monkeys.