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The well-known group of the three monkeys, of which one holds its hands to its ears, another to its eyes, and the third to its mouth, raises many interesting questions that I can formulate without being able to answer completely. We may begin with the question whether the group is in some way related to a European proverb, "Audi, vide, tace, si vis vivere (remanere) in pace." Records of this proverb are not very abundant, and I shall discuss only typical examples to show its history. In the earliest instance that I have found it is attached, although not very securely, to an exemplum which Hermann Oesterley calls ''Focus.''[1] This tells of a thief who threatens to break an oracle's head if it denounces him. The proverb does not seem to be regularly part of the exemplum, but in a sermon preached in Paris around 1300 it is a final moral in the form. "'Audi, vide, tace, si vis vivere in pace,' dicunt Lombardi."[2] From this ascription we may infer that it was not in general use in France at the time. By the end of the century it was sufficiently familiar for Eustache Deschamps to base a balade on it in 1392[3]. The motto of the balade is "Pour vivre en paix il faut être aveugle, sourd et muet." The first stanza runs as follows:

Qui veult vivre paisiblement
Sanz avoir peril de son corps,
Si ait gueule comme oliphant,
Et com taupe les oeulx dehors,
Et n'oie ne c'uns harens sors
S'il veult son corps et biens garder,
El face ainsi com s'il fust mors,
Sans veoir, oir ne parler.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 3:1996 & Issue 4:1996, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

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We can perhaps infer the independent existence of the proverb from a very curious group of carvings at Goa. I have unfortunately been unable to learn anything about these carvings or whether they are still in existence. In his Storia do Mogor or Mogul India 1653-1708, an English translation of an account written in Italian, Portuguese, and French, the Venetian Niccolao Manucci, who spent more than half a century (ca.1656--1717) in India as a physician, describes three statues in a wall near the church of São Paulo (colloquially called the church of Bom Jesus).[11] One touches its eyes with its fingers, another holds its fingers against its ears, and the third has laid a finger on its lips. An inscription--Manucci does not make clear what language it was written in-- reads: "He who sees, hears, and says nothing, lives a life devoid of care." It is not clear that any inference can be drawn from the fact that the carvings were in the vicinity of a Christian church. The resemblance of the inscription to the European proverb that we have discussed is, however, striking. Whether the proverb was brought from Portugal to Goa and how and why the carvings came to be made must remain matters of speculation until some historian of Goa uncovers the facts. The resemblance of the carving to the group of the three monkeys is striking.

We turn now to the group of the three monkeys and must go to Japan for examples. They are perhaps best known to Europeans from a carving on a small building at Nikkõ shrine. The site and the shrine, which was built in 1635-1636, belonged to the Tokugawa family from 1603 to 1867. There are, as Professor Donald Shively tells me, earlier examples of the group in a Buddhist temple at Kyoto and in the Three Monkeys Hall at Awataguchi, which is also a Buddhist temple. In Japan, the notion of the three monkeys is characteristically associated with Buddhism and more especially with the Tendai (T'ient'ai) sect. They may, it has been suggested, represent the Three Dogmas of the so-called middle school of the sect.[12] Saichõ (Dengyõ Daishi, A. D. 727-822), the founder of the sect, is said to have carved them, but the ascription is far from certain. Others say that the three monkeys are to be traced back to Ryõgen (Jie-Daishi or Gansan-Daishi, A. D. 912-985), a reformer of the sect and the author of oracular and divinatory writings. Ryogen spells out the proverb in the so-called "Seven Monkey Poem," in which seven monkeys appear and play with puns and proverbs. Unfortunately, however, the ascription to Ryõgen is also insecure. It does not appear to be easily possible to clarify the obscurities in the date and authorship of these two references to the monkeys.

While we cannot get back to the beginnings of the notion of the three monkeys by studying these ascriptions, we are led to believe that it has a Japanese origin by certain grammatical peculiarities of the language. In the Japanese "Mi-zaru, kika-zaru, iwa-zaru" (Not-see, nothear, not-speak), the word "-zaru" (not) may also be understood to be "-saru" (monkey), as the latter word would appear according to rule in compounds. Since this pun is possible only in Japanese, the figures of the monkeys seem to be a Japanese invention. It is perhaps possible to see a second pun in "mi-zaru," which can be incorrectly read as "three monkeys," but native speakers are wholly unwilling to interpret "mi-zaru" in this way. The difficulty arises from the fact that the word "mi," which is also the numeral "three", cannot be used in counting monkeys. As I understand the grammatical situation, the suggested unacceptable pun would be something like saying "a herd of fish." That is to say, the word "herd" can be used in counting certain animals, but not fish. Whether "mi" can have suggested "three" to a Japanese ear is therefore a matter to be left to those familiar with Japanese grammar and the colloquial language.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 3:1996 & Issue 4:1996, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

And the difficulties do not end with those which have already been stated. Professor Y. R. Chao points out to me the theme in the Analects (Lin-yü) of Confucius, ch. 12: "The Master said: The improper--don't look! The improper--don't listen! The improper--don't speak! The improper--don't move!" This translation I owe to the kindness of Professor E. H. Schafer. There are here two injunctions to avoid paying attention to impropriety and two to avoid committing it. This pairing of the injunctions seems, however, to have had no significance for the development of the group of the three monkeys. The loss of the fourth Chinese injunction-- "The improper--don't move" might perhaps be interpreted as a Japanese preference for the number three. In the same way the popular European versions of Proverbs 30:15 "There are three things...and a fourth I know not" show a reduction from four to three. It may be significant that the Chinese, Japanese, and European injunctions have the same order--seeing, hearing, speaking--but this may be explained as the logical sequence of perceiving and reacting to a stimulus. At least one Japanese translation of the Analects uses the imperative nakare and thus adheres closely to the Chinese construction. It should be noted that the Japanese "Mi-zaru, kika-zaru, iwa-zaru" is an indicative and not an imperative sequence of verbs. It is conceivable that some Japanese version of the Analects or some one speaking colloquially may have used the impersonal third person indicative construction to reproduce the Confucian passage. We must, therefore, leave unanswered the question whether the Japanese words used to describe the three monkeys have a Chinese origin. Should we wish to see their origin in the Confucian Analects, we might say that the association of an abstract saying with animals having a significant relation to it seems also to have developed independently in the Near East or Europe.


*Reprinted from Wolfgang Mieder (ed.) Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1975, pp. 165-171

  1. Gesta Romanorum (Berlin, 1872), No. 57.
  1. B. Hauréau, Notices et extraits de quelques manuscrits latins de la Bibliothèque nationale, III (Paris, 1891), 90, 102.

  2. Marquis de Queux de Saint-Hilaire, ed., Oeuvres complètes de Eustache Deschamps, Société des anciens textes français, I (Paris, 1878), 188--197, No. 83.

  3. Burton E. Stevenson, The Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims and Familiar Phrases (New York, 1948), p. 1767: 3, citing "Du Prestre qu'on porte," v. 303 in Montaiglon and Raynaud, Recueil général des fabliaux, IV, 10.

  4. This and the following examples are quoted from W. G. Smith and Janet E. Heseltine, The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (2d ed. by Sir Paul Harvey, Oxford, 1948), p. 286.

  5. Richard L. Greene, The Early English Carols (Oxford, 1935), p. 234, No. 343, stanza 6. Greene's editorial emendations seem obviously correct and are accepted without indication.

  6. T. H. Jamieson, ed., The Ship of Fools Translated by Alexander Barclay (2 v., Edinburgh, 1874), I, 200.

  7. English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (London, [l929]), p. 294.

    The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 3:1996 & Issue 4:1996, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

  8. For a definition of the Three Dogmas see W. E. Soothill and L. Hodous, A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms (London, 1937), p. 76.

This information I owe to the kindness of Mr. Albert Dien and Dr. Hiroko Ikeda. See the Dictionary of Japanese Ethnology (Nippon shakai minzoku jiten [2 v., Tokyo, 1952-1954], 1, 384, II, 506), with a photograph of a seventeenth-century Kõshin monument at Meguro, Tokyo. For a long discussion of Saichõ, Ryõgen, and the stone monuments see Yamanaka Kyõko, Kyõko zuihitsu "San-en tõ" (Tokyo, 1928), pp. 211-291. For additional photographs of carvings and a discussion of the Kõshin rite see JNõson shinkõ shi: Kõshin nembutsu-hen (Tokyo, 1943). Miwa Zennosuke, Kõshin-machi to Kõshin-to (Tokyo, 1935) has not been available.


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