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Art&CultureHeritage
Silhouettes of sturdy rock on the shoreJeju haenyeo are stoic symbols of tradition on an island of change
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승인 2014.02.06  17:33:26
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▲ “We go to the Otherworld to earn money, and return to this one to save our kids,” runs a haenyeo proverb. Photo courtesy Jeju Olle

Before you see them, you’ll see their tributes: statues carved of porous basalt in the shape of a woman, hunched over, but determined. Immortalized, she is a haenyeo, a woman diver, who can be seen rising from the sea each day, her silhouette as strong as rock.

Romantically referred to as “Korean mermaids,” the haenyeo are much more than that. As symbols of Jeju and its matriarchal past, they are a remarkable rarity in the world and their story is in many ways Jeju's story.

For more than 1,700 years, Jeju women have harvested sea urchin, octopus, seaweed, and abalone from the depths of the sea. Haenyeo came to dominate the diving trade during the Joseon-era, when heavy tax regulations forced men to part with much of their earnings. Females, however, were exempt.

Haenyeo became not just the primary breadwinners in their family, but a powerful economic force for all of Jeju. According to the Jeju provincial govern-ment, in the 1970s haenyeo produced and sustained half of the island’s entire income.

The economic power of the haenyeo is exceptional not just in scale but in practice and culture. No haenyeo dives alone. They gather as a working group in stone structures called "bulteok" along the sea. There they sing songs of labor and hardship, discuss market prices, and prepare for the dive ahead. The women have created their own economic culture, one that values collectivity, shared responsibility, and mutual care.

The haenyeo are also renowned for their marine stewardship. Haenyeo harvest only what can replenish itself, leaving smaller specimens, and what they need for reasonable economic gain. They intentionally limit their harvest time and areas, in addition to participating in mollusk re-seeding programs and garbage removal days. Their divers’ unions also support their villages by investing in public facilities and supporting community events.

With this same spirit of unity and strength, the haenyeo also served as leaders in the Japanese resistance movement. According to the Jeju Provincial Government, during the early 20th-century Japanese occupation, haenyeo led an estimated 240 demon-strations, many with goggles on head and lances in hand.

Whether battling oppression or dangers of the sea, being a haenyeo has never been easy. Without the help of oxygen equipment, these women dive to depths of 20 meters and can hold their breath for up to 2 minutes. They dive year-round, and up until the 1970s when wetsuits were introduced, did so without any thermal gear despite the harsh temperatures.

“We go to the Otherworld to earn money, and return to this one to save our kids,” says a haenyeo proverb. Each dive is a perilous act of sacrifice to provide for their families and communities. All haenyeo know the ocean could take their life any day, and for many it has.

If you’re fortunate enough to see them dive, you’ll hear their labor songs, which ride on the wind with sounds of passion and longing. You can eat freshly caught sea goods on the shore. And if you’re really close, you can hear the sumbisori, the whistling sound haenyeo emit with their first resurfacing gasp.

Though their children may leave the tradition, and though there may be fewer women singing their songs of labor and love on the shore, the cultural imprint of the haenyeo is too indelible to disappear. Their mark is clear in a culture of self-sufficiency and in the Jeju origin myths that portray women as fiercely deter-mined and independent. They will always be heard on the winds carried in from the ocean, with gusts like gasps for air. They will always be seen on the shore in silhouettes of strong and sturdy rock.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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