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Defined by the sea
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승인 2010.06.12  20:37:26
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▲ The site of a Shamanistic ritual to ask for calm seas and good catches for Jeju Island's haenyeo, or women divers, Photo by Brian Miller

The following is the third and final part of the Nobel Prize-winning author’s article that first appeared in the March 2009 edition of France’s GEO magazine. We reprint this translation with the kind permission of GEO.


In Jeju, the dang, the spirits, are never more apparent than in the trees. In Amami, the islands of southern Japan, I saw where they buried the noro, the indigenous ancient priestesses. In Jeju, these are the same secret places where we find the mudang, the shamans — here also, they are mostly women. Dangsin or shamanism, the most ancient religion in Korea, is defined by Prof. Jin Seong Gi, owner of the Jeju Folklore Museum, as the interaction between spirits and humans, in a sacred formal ritual called gut. In nowhere else but Jeju, Jin has catalogued 250 sacred places and 18,000 spirits! Ancient beliefs have survived here with vigor, standing up not only to Buddhism and Confucianism but also against the Shintoism of their Japanese conquerors. It is the people’s religion, practiced by the small farmers and fishermen, but the beliefs permeate the culture, the music, the dance, the literature. The dangsin is the thread that connects all generations and all legends, from Mongolia, China and the ancient legends from the South Pacific. Dangsin connects family lineage, too: certain Jeju families hand down the traditions of shamanism from mother to daughter for more than 22 generations!

The sacred location for the rituals is isolated, removed. Paces from modern apartment buildings and highways, in the capital of Jeju, exists a glade of black stones at the center of which stands a grove of large trees. Long bands of multi-colored silk trail from their branches. It’s here that we find devout practitioners of the cult: they are there, now, busy tying ribbons and preparing offerings of food and drinks. Without a doubt, this old woman with the tanned face of a peasant is the shaman being assisted by the school-aged girl wearing jeans and trendy sneakers. There’s not an atmosphere of recruitment but rather that of a family gathering. There are children playing, seniors resting in the shade of the trees. Some pass by in their work clothes. The trees are decorated with silk bands, their lower branches spread open like giant arms. From the forest ceiling we hear the chatter of the crows and magpies. On some of the trees, the bands flicker in the sunlight, and spiders weave their images into their webs. It gives the impression of an ancient rite but one which maintains its place in the modern world. Strangely, it meets the aspirations of the young generation to regain a connection with nature, as sort of sensory new age practice that will not be cast aside.

Jeju is an island of emotion rather than a land of certitude. The Korean language is a language of affective nuances — one which Westerners sometimes mistake for excessive politeness. Jeong and han are concepts that cannot be adequately translated. Filial devotion, blood lines or vengeance? Korean film is full of those concepts. In Jeju, at the 4.3 Museum, the mausoleum erected in honor of those victims of the genocide of 1948, is an example of this complexity: to remember but also to make connections, to go beyond …

▲ A performer taking part in the Chilmeori Dang Yeondeung Gut. Photo by Yang Ho Geun

Another feeling which exists with force in Jeju is boram. Translated as duty or devotion, it’s a sort of pride mixed with bitterness. It’s this feeling which inspires the women of Jeju who are known the world over as women divers. In my childhood, I remember reading slightly erotic magazine articles about these women in the Pacific who dive half-naked to harvest shells and pearls. The reality is much more prosaic: haenyeo, the women of the sea, are the fishing proletariat. Day after day, no matter the weather or sea conditions, they don their rubber suits, put on their masks or sometimes simple goggles and, weighted only by lead-weight belts, slip into the depths for two or three minutes of apnea so they can grab shellfish, urchins and squid to later be resold to restaurants. It’s a difficult, wearing job.

Today, the majority of the women divers in Jeju are old women. They suffer from osteoarthritis, rheumatism and respiratory problems. Industrial fisheries have shrunk the size of their catch and they now have to go farther, deeper. But what keeps them going is boram, the spirit of sacrifice. It provides them with the pride of a job well done. They do this work so that their daughters can have a better life, go to college, write exams and work in offices.

On a slab of concrete, in the full sun, they present their meager haul: a handful of abalone and clams, some violet sea urchins, some octopi slipping around like pearl stars. There are some starfish, too, not for sale but because they are great predators on the ocean floor and they must be stopped. In the sea breeze, they catch their breath, they rinse off in clean tap water, they chat and laugh a little. On their feet are brightly-colored plastic slippers, their only accessory.

Kim Hoon Hwa is the youngest among them and she must be in her 50s. Her face is marked by the harsh weather; deep lines sewn into it, but when she smiles her teeth reveal a blind-ing whiteness. Her hands are worn, her thumbnails split up to the cuticle. She talks, she laughs, but she is a bit intimidated by our interest in her. Her eldest son found a job in town with the major company, Samsung. Her daughter is studying, so she will never have to go to sea.

In the hidden bands of the coastline, other divers set up a small kitchen among the rocks, where they are grilling pieces of abalone for the tourists. These women understand the sea more than anyone else in the world, this grey, cold, hostile sea that beats against the shore. Occasionally, there is an accident. One woman held her breath for too long, and the carbon dioxide damaged her brain. These women struggle every day to supplement their family budget. Their only reward is that feeling, between pride and pain, the hope that they will be the last in their lineage that will need to suffer.

▲ A haenyeo diving woman searches Jeju's waters for seafood. Photo by Daniel Kojetin

“Jeju sits on the ocean like a large witch’s hat.” That’s how Prof. Jin describes it, without jest or malice. In Jeju, legends surround us. Like in Britain, or in Scotland, they whisper into every moment of our lives. Born from the volcanoes, the mouths of shadows and lava-formed tunnels which are said to be the longest in the world. Each lava cone is a man, a woman or a child. On the coast, the morning fog hooks on to the basalt tubes, as beautiful as the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. Irradiated by the sun, the sea gushes out between dragon’s teeth reefs. Distant waves carry great mysteries to the shore, the jaws of a squall in which popular belief states a fantastic creature, the dokkaebi, terrifying with a single eye in the middle of his forehead and single horn protruding from the top of his head, resides.

The yongwang, the dragon king, lives in the depths of the sea. But he is not harmful: in Mokpo, in the south of mainland Korea, he revealed a path along the ocean floor so a woman could escape the jaws of tigers that were chasing her.

On Jeju, we are always facing the sea no matter where we stand. The sea grants salvation, purveying fish and driftwood. The sea also brings the danger of invaders and destructive typhoons. Every soul is permeated with this sense of impermanence and one must content as best they can with their destiny.

There is a strange closeness between the sea and death. It is no doubt in this that is born the feeling of melancholy expressed by the explorers who first set foot on this land. Aimless wandering through the maze of paths bordered by small fences built against the wind, the vast fields of eulalia-covered slopes or in counting off the rosary of islands that surround Jeju: Udo, Cow Island, with its coral beaches; Marado, whose deep faults are under constant assault from waves that have traveled the world; Beomseom, Saesom, Munseom, black stones emerging from the deeps; even Seong-san and its black peak, the crags carved by a giant sword, the first land spotted by Hendrik Hamel before his ship wrecked onto its shores.

Honest, faithful, fantastical Jeju, in all seasons …




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