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Culture bearers: Jeju's first migrant wivesThe women of Jeju’s foundational mythology are just as relevant now as they have ever been
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승인 2014.03.07  14:01:07
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▲ Samseonghyeol in Jeju City. Photo courtesy Jeju Special Self-Governing Province

A short walk from The Jeju Weekly office is Samseonghyeol, the progenitorial holes from which arose Jeju’s three founding clans: Ko, Yang and Bu. Nestled behind the KAL Hotel, a symbol of Jeju’s swift development, is a lasting reminder of its ancient past.

It was out of this troika in now-urban Jeju that arose the founding fathers of Jeju lore. (The order in which they arose depends upon which family lineage you consult.) Reaching the surface from their subterranean womb, clad in animal skins, they lived a subsistence existence as hunter gatherers in Jeju’s interior.

One day, wandering along the shore, they spotted a purple wooden chest float in off the sea to the east. Curious, they opened it. To their surprise, an ambassador in a blue cloak and red crest arose from the chest. Hailing from Byeokrangguk, a kingdom over the eastern seas, he had been sent by his king.

Peering further into the box, more was revealed. The blue-cloaked emissary had gifts for the Jeju males: three princesses to found dynasties, a calf, a colt and five grains. Now able to rear livestock and sow the land, the three could found settlements and eschew their nomadic habits. Each fired an arrow from Mt. Halla and settled where it landed: Ildo, Ido and Samdo were born.

The mythological motif is clear: The insular males had been civilized, courtesy of three princesses and the gift of sedentary agriculture, all from foreign shores. The civilizer is a common figure in global myth, with mainland Korean tradition including Gija, a semi-legendary Chinese sage who was long praised for introducing Chinese culture to Korea by the Joseon-era literati.

Historian David Nemeth believes the archetype of the civilization-bringer served “Yi dynasty Neo-Confucian interests,” but also notes the anomaly of “the diffusion of agriculture ... from the east,” suggesting Japan, running counter to the Sino-centric worldview, and highlighting “the mixed origins of Cheju Island’s prehistoric peoples.”

To be sure, some scholars now posit Wando, an island in South Jeolla Province, as the emissary-sending kingdom, the mission having followed wending sea currents. This is a more recent interpretation; yet, even if true, it doesn’t weaken the underlying motif: A meeting of the known and unknown.

In addition to the fusion of native and foreign, the myth also stands out for its relative gender equality, reflecting Jeju’s matrilineal culture, as stated by mythologist James H. Grayson.

“It is one of the few myths in Korea which explains the origins of society and the clan system by a nearly equal reference to the clan ancestress as well as to the clan ancestors.”

The myth is thus extremely rare in Korea, memorializing the civilizing influence of foreign peoples on island natives and placing women as the civilizers. In most myths, according to Grayson, it is male destinies that are central, yet he notes the seminal role of the king’s daughters in bringing civilization in the form of agriculture and animal husbandry.

Jeju’s famed matriarchal culture may have long been diluted by Confucian traditions from the Korean mainland - coming in the wake of Joseon hegemony post-1392 - but the clans’ founding myth retains a genetic archaeology to the civilizing role of women from faraway shores.

As Jeju comes to terms with a fast-changing social fabric, this powerful motif is a treasure of immense cultural worth. Whether Wando or Japan, or elsewhere, it is important to retain the legend’s pearl of intercultural exchange between unknown cultures, male and female.

March 8 is International Women’s Day, followed just two weeks later by Racial Discrimination Day on March 21. There is no better time to express gratitude to Jeju’s primordial mothers - perhaps Korea’s first migrant wives - who came to make honest men of three lonely hunter gatherers on an isolated, unsown land.

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