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Passion for the past alive and wellThe drive for UNESCO listing of haenyeo culture led to a discussion on the meaning of tradition for today’s youth
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승인 2014.03.25  09:58:40
트위터 페이스북 미투데이 요즘 네이버 구글 msn
▲ Haenyeo preparing for a public performance, one of the means of preserving the local tradition. Photo courtesy Jeju Special Self-Governing Province

The recent UNESCO intangible cultural heritage bid for Jeju haenyeo, or women divers, has led to an upsurge in interest in the fascinating tradition. As a high school student, I began to think deeply about what tradition means to my generation, from our seemingly distant standpoint. I organized a discussion group with fellow NLCS Jeju students to debate the topic, all from Seoul with the exception of Jeju-born Eubeen Yang (18).

In many ways we are all citizens of the world, most having lived abroad in places such as Canada, China and Hungary. Further, all study an international curriculum and many will pursue their further education outside of Korea. Such diversity doubtless influenced our perspectives on both the value of tradition and methods of preservation, if such were deemed worthy.

I began the discussion by asking the group if they believe traditions are valuable. The group felt that the fundamental issue of what constitutes tradition must first be established. Although the question remained unanswered, there was much discussion around the difference between historical record and tradition. It was also felt important to note the contrasts between living and fossilized tradition.
Differing views were clearly expressed on the definition and role of tradition. Eubeen Yang stated that preservation should mean ensuring the public "correctly" understood historic cultural practices and “instilling a proper appreciation of the values they embody.” She lamented the “mocking attitude” toward haenyeo sometimes exhibited by her peers, who saw the practice as both fascinating yet "backwards."

On the other hand, Jungmin Park (16) was more concerned with definition in relation to preservation and, reflecting UNESCO intangible cultural heritage criteria, said that traditional practices ought to be “living ... in order to interact with our lives continuously.” Otherwise, she continued, “traditions are no different from the historical record.”

The debate then moved on to look more deeply at the UNESCO bid and whether it was necessary. Jong-guk Lee (17) insightfully suggested that “preservation of tradition should be a natural process in which only the cultural practices currently relevant to our ways of living become truly ‘living traditions’.”

Many pointed out that despite UNESCO’s intangible cultural herit-age designation (2009) for the Chilmeori-dang Yeongdeung-gut, a shamanic ritual to a local sea and wind goddess who protects both divers and fishers, they knew nothing about such a cultural practice.

While Jennifer Park lamented that the bid for preservation had become a nationalist issue in light of a potential rival bid from Japan’s “ama,” Jihyun Bang (19) saw the UNESCO title as beyond mere international recognition, as, “It still prompted people to act and served as a catalyst in raising public awareness.”

Although many differing perspectives were raised in the discussion around the question of whether tradition was valuable, all students were unanimous, replying “Yes” without hesitation. Taeyang Lee (17) even expressed that, both for present and future generations, she feels “a sense of belonging and pride created through traditions, and [an obligation to preserve] traditions and strengthen our connections with the community we belong to.”

Finally, I challenged the students as to whether our generation was less historically aware than previous generations. Jennifer Park (18), first stating she couldn’t speak for the whole of her generation let alone any other, said that the worries about globalization dislocating youth from the past were overstated, concluding:

“Perhaps our perspectives have become more diverse, but I have many friends who care about national pride especially as they gain a more global perspective and as they begin to think about what it means to be Korean in this diverse and vast world.”

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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