Grandmothers of Jeju
Grandmothers of Jeju
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Women’s cultural artifacts

Women have held a significant role in Jeju society throughout the centuries. While not in positions of leadership, they have nevertheless formed communities related to occupation and craft, religion, and many other facets of Jeju society.

Moon Soon Deok, PhD, of the Jeju Development Institute (JDI) served as the chief researcher for a study of cultural artifacts specifically related to women.

The end result of this effort, “Jeju Women’s 100 Cultural Assets,” was published in 2009.

The qualitative study was conducted over a two-year period by a team of feminists, historians, and experts in field research. In 2007 the team scanned the whole of Jeju Island for appropriate sites. In 2008 they visited 300 villages and interviewed many hundreds of women, ultimately identifying a total of 4,000 cultural assets.

Their work was printed in a massive volume currently housed at JDI. Over a two-month period in 2009, six scholars including Dr. Moon reviewed the original document and ultimately chose the 100 most significant assets for the book. Dr. Moon refers to this decision-making process as “very difficult work.”

Sites chosen include those having to do with water (e.g., collection of seawater), the 4.3 Massacre, historical events, religion, artifacts such as bangsatap (stone mounds), traditional fishing facilities like wondam (shallow seawater contained by stone fences), myths related to women and goddesses, and more.

The women interviewed were all over 50 years of age, with a majority in their 70s and beyond. It was critical to the researchers that the storytellers have a direct connection to the topics. Many of the original 4,000 assets identified have already disappeared. However, the 100 chosen for the final publication remain today, in their primal states.

These grandmothers told the stories of their lives, answering numerous questions about the cultural assets with which they were connected. When asked if a common theme emerged from their stories, Dr. Moon replied that the women had emphasized that their lives were not special but ordinary – that hardship was common to all.

The grandmothers’ topics included work in the markets, fields, and sea; the women who fought in the Joseon army; Kim Man Deok’s life and her grave site; the gathering of sea salt, sea water, and fresh water in communal facilities; various shamanic or traditional religious sites of worship, celebration, sacred events; Buddhist origins and sacred sites; women resisters during the Japanese colonial period; origins of the women’s independence movement; sites of wrongful death associated with the 4.3 Massacre; and much, much more.

One of Dr. Moon’s favorite stories was a historical romance in which a man exiled to Jeju during the Joseon period formed a relationship with a local woman, Hong Yoon Ae, who subsequently died for him. When pardoned, he was offered residence in Pyongyang – then the capital city and a highly desired destination. He chose instead to return to Jeju, become a poet, and write poems to his former love. A sample of his poetry was etched into her gravestone.
Dr. Moon hopes that this book will serve as a sacred guidebook that shares its stories with readers and leads them to these sites with the goal of increasing awareness of the cultural value and need for preservation.

She holds a special affection for this book as she deeply wishes for Jeju people to care for these cultural assets.

The provincial government provides some funding to villages for the upkeep of these traditional sites, though it has not yet made direct use of the data from this study. It is up to the villagers themselves, according to Dr. Moon and others, to realize the value in preserving their heritage and to take appropriate measures.

Additionally, Dr. Moon would like the young women of Jeju to benefit from their female ancestors’ experience and knowledge.

She adds that while all of the sites in this book have been maintained by women, the village elders have always been male. She hopes that women will be able to more actively participate in the leadership of their families, social affairs and villages in the future.

Dr. Moon and her team hold the belief that this would mean a brighter future for Jeju itself.

“Jeju Women’s 100 Cultural Assets” is in the Korean language only. It can be downloaded for free at the JDI Web site:  <Jeju Weekly>

<Anne Hilty ⓒ Jeju Weekly All rights reserved>

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