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The Three Wise Monkeys: Gold and Silver Coins of Tanzania

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Everybody knows the symbol representing an Asian proverb: the three wise monkeys, covering their eyes, ears and mouth respectively. A coin from Tanzania, incorporating all the technical refinement of modern minting technology, invites collectors to ponder on the wisdom contained in this pictorial maxim.

In Japan, the three wise monkeys represent a popular proverb: mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru. To see (no evil), to hear (no evil), to speak (no evil). For those unfamiliar with eastern philosophy, this may indeed sound like a no to civil courage. And yet, the maxim means just the opposite.

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The proverb can be dated back to Chinese philosopher Confucius. About 2,500 years ago, he advocated benevolence and moral sense. Do not let yourself be influenced by evil, better even, avoid evil altogether in order not to be infected by it. This does not, however, imply you should look away when others need help, on the contrary! After all, the wellbeing of state and society were at the heart of Confucian philosophy. But what do monkeys have to do with anything?

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In Early Middle Japanese, verb forms like «not see» are negated with the suffix zaru, which sounds similar to the word for monkey, saru. An ideal coincidence to create a memorable artistic representation of this moral maxim. And so the three verb forms of the saying came to mean the names of the three monkeys over the years: Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazaru.

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