It’s doubtful that anyone ever said it in English before the end of the 17th century. The concept of ‘see not evil, ‘hear not evil’, ‘speak not evil’ related back to Confucius in China, several hundred years BC, and then travelled to Japan, where it was known for centuries as a moral maxim. By a trick of the Japanese language, the maxim eventually became known world-wide. ‘Kikazaru, Iwazaru, Mizaru’ actually means ‘See not evil, hear not evil, speak not evil’ but the Japanese suffix for not (zaru) sounds very like the Japanese word for monkey (saru). So gradually an association grew between avoiding the proscribed evils, and monkeys.
A stone carving of three monkeys appeared in Japan during the 16th century. But it was 100 years later that the most famous visual appeared – showing monkeys not seeing, hearing or speaking.
The spectacular Toshugu Shrine near the town of Nikko took 15,000 craftsmen over two years to build and then decorate with two million sheets of gold leaf. Its elaborate stable for the Emperor’s sacred horse features wall designs by the celebrated carver Hidario Jingogo in 1636, including his famous depiction of three monkeys who avoid evil by not seeing it, speaking it, or hearing it.
The popularity of the three wise monkeys quickly spread. By the end of the 19th century they had become an established image in Wester décor. An international hobby group estimates that they have been created in over 20,000 different versions as ornaments, and in every conceivable substance.
Miniatures are made in gold and set with jewels; they can be shelf-sized in brass; or right up to life-size wise monkeys made of concrete for garden decoration. They can be found in porcelain, alabaster, plaster of paris, wood, bronze, nickel and pewter. They adorn door knockers, cigarette boxes, bookends, paper-weights, wine bottles and toasting forks. The three wise monkeys are everywhere.