Netsuke Three Monkeys,
Replicas of Ancient Japanese Belt Adornments. Circa 2015 AD Emojis
These three endearing monkeys might be familiar to anyone fluent with emojis. Their story stretches far beyond the digital emoticons of our glowing screens and back into the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history (771 to 476 BC). The Chinese philosopher Confucius, who dedicated his life to promoting personal, social and governmental morality, wrote in the Analects of Confucius:
"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"
This phrase was then thought to have been shortened from four virtues to three when it migrated to Japanese culture, a telling reflection of our modern habit of making points in sets of three in order to be better remembered and understood. These three virtues then took their present form in the embodiment of monkeys that were carved above a shrine entrance in Nikko, Japan, in the 17th century. The monkeys themselves were an incidental addition to the Japanese saying 'see not, hear not, speak not'.
We now know these virtues best as 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil', and their current interpretation as some of the most commonly used emojis today.