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To honor, not romanticize, Jeju’s matriarchsUNESCO status is a key step in ensuring Jeju women divers are given their due respect
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승인 2015.06.30  15:13:05
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▲ Fewer and fewer Jeju haenyeo are in the seas with most in their 60s and above. Photo by Douglas MacDonald

This is a promotional article for Jeju Special Self-Governing Province.

Whether as romantic mermaids, hardy laborers or Asian Amazons, haenyeo are absolutely essential to understanding Jeju culture.

For 17 centuries, possibly much more, they have free-dived down to 20 meters, for up to 2 minutes, harvesting sea urchin, octopus, seaweed, and abalone along Jeju’s rocky coastline and far beyond.

Despite being “in the lowest class akin to that of slaves” during the Joseon era, haenyeo were always the linchpins of Jeju’s matrifocal culture.

In many ways their position reflects that of their unique shamanic heritage, replete with colorful, powerful and independent goddesses, similarly resisted by hegemonic Confucian forces.

Hand-to-mouth for centuries, the Japanese industrialized the tradition, organizing the first fishing cooperatives and increasing production. This was while also conscripting males in the community, or sending them overseas as laborers, increasing women’s domestic and economic power.

They were — and still are — the dominant force at home, even up to challenging the state. Their iconic resistance to Japanese rule, lances in hand, remains an enduring symbol of not only Jeju womanhood, but also Korean nationhood.

▲ Jeju haenyeo continue to symbolize the spirit of the Jeju people. Photo by Douglas MacDonald

Communities naturally rallied around them, much as they did in the "bulteok," stone structures still seen on the coast. A symbolic and practical expression of communal togetherness, this was where decisions were made, and tasks delegated.

Their importance grew further after independence from Japan, achieved in 1945, and it may be a surprise to learn that haenyeo numbers peaked not in the distant past, but as recently as 1966 when 24,268 were registered.

Increasingly centralized regulations at this time removed some of their independence as merchants within local cooperatives.

Their net harvest accordingly grew, exported to the growing economies of Japan and the mainland, and by the 1970s the trade accounted for half of Jeju’s income. All the while diving in non-thermal cotton clothing.

Not soon after, however, intergenerational transmission ceased, with only 8,402 divers registered in 1975. There are now around 4,500, ironically at a time when more people than ever are aware of their importance to Jeju culture.

Such respect, however, was a long time coming for these women, more often symbols of poverty, hardship, even pity. Girls were reluctantly sent to sea by necessity, when land was unproductive and food was scarce.

In contrast to the grandmotherly haenyeo of popular imagination, old photographs show almost exclusively young women queuing up at the shore, haenyeo registration being limited to 50 years of age. Quinquagenarians were routinely replaced by youths eager for the harvest.

Yet few have replaced those seen in the old pictures, working the oceans since middle school, relief still unforthcoming. As of 2014, 83 percent were over 60 years of age, with over 50 percent 70-plus.

It is no surprise that, in an age of compulsory education and a booming tourism industry, young women are not too keen on risking their lives for the (albeit lucrative) abalone harvest.

It is left to two haenyeo schools on the island, at Gwideok and Beophwan, to ensure this invaluable global heritage is transmitted in some form.

This is why UNESCO designation of haenyeo culture is so important, potentially heralding an age when Jeju’s matriarchal maritime heritage is celebrated for its true worth.

Submitting its application in 2014 for a 2015 inscription as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, in many ways Korea was a victim of its own success. It was eliminated at the review stage due to already holding 16 inscriptions; haenyeo culture was thus added to Korea's 25 other pending applications.

While UNESCO inscription surely won’t be enough alone to halt the long-term decline in haenyeo numbers, there are hopes that women long driven to the profession by poverty could be soon be pulled by prestige and pride.

In the very least, writes Anne Hilty in the Introduction to Book I of Jeju Haenyeo: Stewards of the Sea, “These women, and their countless matriarchal ancestors, deserve to be honored and memorialized.”

All sources: Jeju Haenyeo: Stewards of the Sea Books I and II by Anne Hilty (published by Jeju Sea Grant and The Jeju Weekly)

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