Welcome to

DragonA Far East Journal Dragon

(1915 - 1941)

The primary contents of this site are the journals of my grandfather, Harold Abbott Rand Conant [HARC], who spent many years in the Far East. Although they are of particular interest to family members, anyone interested in the history and cultures of Asia, particularly China, will find them of inordinate interest since HARC was widely traveled, took a great interest in the history of the entire region, and, because of his many friendships, had a rather comprehensive understanding of events leading up to the beginnings of World War II.

Edmund Conant Perry
Menlo Park, California

First prepared in book form March, 1994
Prepared for Internet hosting September, 1996


Chapter 10

Three Wise Little Monkeys

Had I been wise this would never have been written. The little scamps led me in diverse directions and had me scampering up and down seemingly endless library steps. These ubiquitous little fellows with their advice to See, Hear, Speak No Evil seemed to offer some possibility of tie up with the Japan of today so I started to chase it. To save others from following in my footsteps, these Three Apes are given this pen of their own and are ''penned'' up (to the uninitiated, written up!) at some length.

Three Wise Monkeys

Pose in a Million


This newspaper photograph of three inmates of the London Zoo was sent to HARC by his brother, Lawrence, in June 1955.

Our miniature friends are often stamped ''Made in China,'' but I never thought the prototype was Chinese and, in fact, I was once quite certain their origin was Japanese, but am not now sure of anything in connection with the Scamperers! Many friends from the Far East had as many different ideas. The returned (and tired) business man proving hopeless, I took many further steps in various libraries, but feel sure even those would have been in vain had I not been guided by kindly savants. The following cooperated in my search for enlightenment: Dr. John C. Ferguson (who spent 56 years in the Orient and wrote much on Bronzes, Mythology, etc.); Dr. L. Carrington Goodrich of Columbia (whose most interesting A Short History of the Chinese People was published by Harper's in 1943); Mr. Langdon Warner of the Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard (I recently enjoyed his Long Old Road in China and beautifully illustrated Craft of the Japanese Sculptor); and Mr. Kojiro Tomita, Curator of the Department of Asiatic Art, Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Dr. Goodrich wrote that the tiny preceptors ''are thought to have been launched by Dengyo Daishi (Saicho, 767-822 A.D., who brought the T'ien- t'ai system of Buddhism from Chekiang, China, to Japan) but may be connected with both Buddhism and Taoism, and so with both India and China.''

Mr. Tomita wrote:

In regard to your inquiry concerning the ''three monkeys'' I wish to say that I have been unable to discover any new material. All the available reference books here merely repeat what has been said by an earlier writer (who was the earliest I have no means of learning). They all explain the significance of the ''three monkeys'' by pointing out that the noun saru (monkey) is homonymous with the adverb saru (not) and hence the animal came to be used to denote the negative. Dengyo Daishi is popularly regarded as the originator of the ''three monkeys'' idea. Whether this is so or not, the idea appears to be of Japanese origin, since there seems to be no prototype either in Indian or Chinese sources.

I may add that the Japanese words for the three ''don'ts'' are mizaru (see not), kikazaru (hear not) and iwazaru (speak not). When the adverb saru is used as the second word in a compound, the first consonant is changed phonetically from ''s'' to ''z.''

Saru (monkey) is one of the twelve signs of the Japanese Zodiac. There is a Japanese festival known as the ''Day of the Monkey'' at which prayers are offered at shrines.

Joly's Legend in Japanese Art refers to the little scamperers as ''Three Mystic Apes,'' who see, listen to, and hear no evil, and who are attendants of Koshin, the God of the Roads, but the book further states they are also known as ''Monkeys of the Three Countries, viz., India, China, and Japan,'' which rather complicates our subject! Joly has another story about a legendary monkey that, together with a boar and a demon, accompanied Sanzo Hoshi (Yuan Chwan) on his travels. This Chinese priest went to India in 629 and returned to China in 646 A.D. with many Buddhist relics and writings.

Nikko guides say that the monkeys preach the obvious sermon, but priests at mountain shrines tell the most generally accepted legend, which fits the picture pretty well:

In very olden days, a wise and good Monkey King lived on one side of a mountain. A Great Evil was on the other. The King's councillors were three very old, wizened and very wise monkeys. Only they, by tradition, knew about the Great Evil. They also knew that if anyone heard or looked on It, his heart would be hardened forever, and woe would befall the Monkey Kingdom. They were gathering rare wild flowers for the King one day. They peered through some bushes and unwittingly gazed upon the Great Evil, hearing Its awesome shrieks. One covered his eyes, but he could hear. One covered his ears, but he could see. One could both see and hear, but covered his lips and pressed back the dreadful secret deeply within himself. They stole back into the forest knowing their own hearts were spoiled forever. They huddled together on a drooping willow branch. All their wrinkles were shaking. They chattered and whispered dolefully for hours. By nightfall they had decided to follow the counsel of the one who had seen and heard all but would not talk about it and, by emulating him, keep the horrible secret from becoming known, and thereby spare the King and his people a terrible fate.

There are many variations and embellishments, and story tellers have even grafted the three imps onto the well known tale of ''The Silly Jelly Fish'' (making all sound a little too fishy!) which could then run somewhat as follows:

In olden times Jelly fish had a hard shell which was both beautiful and a protection against enemies. One such was the proud retainer of the Dragon Queen of the ''World Under the Sea.'' He was the playmate of the Dragon King. The Queen grew very sick. The whole Underworld moped, the clams shut up, and skates lay flat and still. Only a live monkey's liver could save the Queen! A tortoise, commanded to get one, arrived under a tree full of monkeys, and lay quietly, sticking only his tail out. The simians, having only two inch stumps for tails, formed a hand-to-hand chain for monkeyshines. They swung to and fro like a pendulum until finally the lowest monkey was able to grab the tail of the tortoise. This was what he had been waiting for. He stuck out his head for a look-see and grasped the monkey, intimidating him into riding pickaback through the water to the Dragon Queen. (It is at this point that the three monkeys are said to have scampered back to the limb and sat eating monkey nuts whilst lugubriously chattering and sorrowing for their lost comrade.) The Queen felt sorry for the monkey, and had him well fed. The Jelly fish had qualms and warned the monkey as to what was in store. The monkey thought and thought and finally wept salty tears in front of the tortoise, saying he couldn't eat as he had left his liver on the tree to dry. The tortoise was in a quandry and carried the monkey back for the liver, the monkey of course taking good care to disappear where the tortoise couldn't follow. The Jelly fish was found out and stripped of his shell, leaving him naked and ashamed, and then all his bones were broken with a coral switch. His descendants were cursed and condemned to exist in similar naked and flabby state for all eternity.

There is another pitiful little yarn about a hunter who shot a monkey and hung him in front of the fire to dry. The monkey's children never again wanted to hear, see, or speak of such an Evil Thing. The hunter was awakened during the night by a pattering of little feet and saw three baby monkeys trying to warm themselves, and then their parent, from the dying embers. (The hunter shot no more monkeys.)

I wanted light as a prelude to writing this in unfamiliar surroundings. Bang! Damn!! It must have been Iwazaru! He was clinging, as a weight (but acting like a pendulum!) on an electric light pull. Even now nothing seems too clear regarding Wynken, Blynken, and Nod. Three Blind Mice might have laid the trail I tried to follow. The research finally found me chattering and jabbering to myself. The tension wasn't relieved when I came across a story called ''Momotaro, the Story of a Son of a Peach''!

The Japanese are good at telling fairy stories. If Three Wise Little Monkeys point a moral, maybe it is that we should guard against monkey tricks now - and forever afterwards?


This page is part of http://www.three-monkeys.info, the most comprehensive website on the internet about the three wise monkeys that hear, see and speak no evil.

With hundreds of pictures.       All texts are in English, German, French and Dutch.

Free online Newsletter.

Free Appraisal/Opinion of your three monkeys set.

Online store for 3 monkeys sets, some old, some new, from countries around the world.

Back to top