Jeju haenyeo have been the subject of many scientific studies, and their culture can viewed in biological, psychological, sociological, anthropological, and ecological frameworks.
Sociological. Since the free-diving profession of Jeju Island became dominated by women during the Joseon era as a "loophole" in the tax regulations of that time in which heavy tribute to the sovereign was demanded of male but not female citizens, Jeju haenyeo represented a primary economic force and thus enjoyed an organic form of leadership unimaginable to their mainland counterparts.
In fact, the whole of Jeju culture, not limited to the haenyeo, can be said to have had matrifocal underpinnings, as evidenced in the island's core mythology. The creation or origination myth of the island itself focuses on a central female deity, and a multitude of other female deities play prominent roles in Jeju's polytheistic tradition. The themes of this mythology depict women as independent, self-actualizing, strong-willed and possessing initiative, themes carried out in the society to this day and embodied by the haenyeo community.
One such is that of Gamunjang-Aegi, goddess of fortune, whose story teaches that one makes one's own fortune without depending on anyone. Yeongdeung, goddess of wind and sea who visits for two weeks each spring, is the iconic deity of both haenyeo and fishermen; in the myth, the goddess rescues foolish, shipwrecked fishermen from being eaten by Cyclops. The Yeongdeung-gut, an annual ritual beseeching this patron deity for a healthy and prosperous season of marine harvest, received UNESCO designation in 2010.
Though not in obvious roles of leadership such as those of village chief or government official, or even as the head of their own economic collective, the haenyeo have nevertheless depicted leadership in a myriad of ways beyond economy. Specifically, haenyeo in the northeastern regions of Jeju and Udo island led an independence movement against the Japanese colonizers in the early 20th century, many of them imprisoned for their activism. They have also routinely influenced decision-making within their villages and in their own households.
However, Jeju haenyeo have historically been placed among the lower social strata, though Jeju society in general is and has always been essentially egalitarian with far less of a class structure than that of the mainland. Nevertheless, haenyeo generally have not been formally educated beyond a basic level, and are engaged in manual labor that is especially difficult and dangerous work — thus it is only quite recently that their profession is receiving so much focus and accolade.
Anthropological. The Jeju haenyeo are an anthropological wonder and it is on this basis that UNESCO designation of their community of practice is sought. In addition to their actual work-related skills, practices and equipment known as "muljil" and officially designated as a cultural asset by Jeju provincial government, the haenyeo have a complex and fully contained community. This is evidenced by systems of collective economics or "eochongye," hierarchies based upon skill and seniority, an animistic / shamanistic magico-religious tradition which sustains them spiritually and serves to create social cohesion, mutual aid (in forms such as midwifery, child care, elder care, school-building, village rituals, farming, wild plant gathering, and more), labor songs, distinctive traditional diving garments which predated the use of wetsuits, herbal remedies particular to their profession, a history of political and social activism, routine use of the Jeju linguistic dialect, and specific myths and legends. They therefore represent a very rich cultural spectrum.
Two haenyeo, Kim Youngja and Kang Deungja, have been designated by Jeju provincial government as official Skills Holders of the haenyeo songs. "Song of the Haenyeo," originally written as a protest song by a jailed haenyeo during the independence movement, became a labor song to accompany the rowing of the boat to the location for advanced diving, and is one of the most iconic haenyeo songs surviving today. Another well-known song, "Ieodo-sana," refers to the position that Ieodo has always held in Jeju mythology: as a place of afterlife, a utopia, an Otherworld to which one goes after death, where fishermen lost at sea and divers who drown may live forever — a place simultaneously of longing and dread.
In addition to the cultural features identified above, the unique Jeju dialect used predominantly by the haenyeo community provides linguistic anthropological study. Bearing features of Chinese, Japanese, Mongolian, and early Korean as well as unidentified Southeast Asian and/or Oceanic languages, it contains an extensive lexis, phonology and morphology unknown on the mainland. In December of 2010 UNESCO declared the Jeju dialect an "endangered language," resulting in multiple preservation efforts.
Further, the "kwendang" system of kinship found on Jeju significantly informs the haenyeo community. As each haenyeo group is defined by village boundaries, and newcomers to the community can only enter the economic collective and dive in that area of the sea by virtue of this kinship system whether through marriage or blood, it remains that these tightly woven networks profoundly influence the haenyeo community structure.
It has also been suggested that the fishermen and haenyeo respectively represent the hunters-gatherers of early cultures; the fact that they are also farmers when not working the sea brings together these anthropological features, in a marriage of hunting-gathering and agricultural society. This image is further supported by the founding myth of the Jeju clans, "Samseonghyeol" and the original Tamna Kingdom, in which three hunter-gatherer demi-gods who emerged from Jeju soil married three princesses from across the sea who brought with them the seeds of agriculture.
Ecological. In a motion for referendum presented and passed at the recent IUCN World Conservation Congress [Motion #108] for the sustainability of the haenyeo community and profession, the haenyeo were portrayed in an ecological framework of biocultural diversity and marine stewardship. Their practices throughout the centuries have been ecologically sound, in terms of limiting the amount of time they spend harvesting in the sea, taking only larger prey and leaving smaller ones, and more recently, mollusk re-seeding programs and garbage removal days. The primary reason for their not using breathing apparatus is one of limiting the amount of time that they can dive and thus controlling their harvest. Further, their practices are sustainable: they are only harvesting that which can replenish itself, only taking what they need for personal use or reasonable economic gain -- and can carry on their own in a small net, and are diving in small regions of the sea limited by the boundaries of their economic collective.
The knowledge that Jeju haenyeo have of the sea is unparalleled. The threat to their lives and livelihood, both individually and collectively, is very real. The loss of indigenous marine wisdom that their culture's extinction would represent is one that the world cannot afford.
-- Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist from New York who now makes Jeju Island her home.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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