How to preserve a subculture that's literally dying out?
The world is fascinated with the “haenyeo,” Jeju's unique free-divers – almost exclusively women – whose occupation it is to harvest marine products without benefit of breathing apparatus.
Numerous articles have been written about them in the foreign media, and they inspire documentary films, visual and performance art, and other endeavors.
Yet, as Jeju continues to modernize – and climate change as well as pollution threaten sea life – so too is this unusual subculture facing extinction.
Several preservation efforts have been implemented and many others are in various stages of development, including the potential for UNESCO designation as an “intangible cultural asset.”
But to what end?
The issue is complicated. The profession has existed on Jeju for nearly two millenia and is arguably the most iconic feature of this island society, thus worthy of preservation. It is also due to this profession, coupled with a shamanic mythology rich in goddess imagery, that a matrifocal, egalitarian culture emerged on Jeju.
In contrast, however, the haenyeo work has been locally viewed throughout its history as one of manual labor – “3D,” as the saying goes in Korea, “dirty, dangerous, and difficult” – and the diving women considered among the lower strata of society.
The women themselves have not placed much value on the significance of their profession in the context of Jeju culture, and have encouraged their daughters to seek safer, cleaner and “more respectable” types of employment.
The haenyeo do value their community, however, and many describe their experience of the sea in glowing terms, as a place familiar and comfortable, where they forget all their troubles, and that “calls” to them when they are on land, luring them back to this watery world.
They also tend to speak favorably of the sisterhood they have found among their colleagues, and the economic independence and general autonomy that their work brings.
Dr. Choa Hye Gyoung, senior researcher at the Haenyeo Museum, has suggested that the demise of the haenyeo subculture would lead to the collapse of their local communities – as the women and their profession are so closely linked with the identity and well-being of their coastal villages.
Cultural preservation efforts are well underway, to which the museum in Hado-ri, school and “experience” in Gwideok-ri, and demonstration in Seongsan-ri attest. A committee has been exploring the possibility of UNESCO status for the haenyeo since 2006.
The Haenyeo Culture Festival is in its 4th year, and this year's event has a dedicated focus of preservation. Statues and other haenyeo-related artwork can be found throughout the island.
Last month, Jeju Provincial Council's special committee for women sponsored a forum entitled, “Haenyeo Culture Globalization.” Dr. Choa participated, as did Dr. Yoo Chul-In of Jeju National University's anthropology department and several others.
The committee will hold a second such forum this month, with a focus on UNESCO designation. Dr. Yoo has been involved with haenyeo-related UNESCO endeavors from the beginning.
Attending this forum were many of the haenyeo themselves, who questioned the value of preservation and UNESCO designation, begging the question: who are these efforts meant to benefit?
It is a well-known fact, however, that members of a culture often don't fully recognize its worth until external validation is established. In cultural studies, there is a saying: “If you want to know about the water... don't ask the fish.” Inherent wisdom aside, humans are reluctant to place value upon what for them is the norm.
The diving women of Jeju are only now beginning to realize the worth, and the uniqueness, of their profession. This, too, is the primary benefit of obtaining UNESCO and other recognition: in so doing, a greater value is attributed to the profession and its cultural context, which in turn can serve to attract the younger generation to the profession once more.
Other preservation efforts in various stages of progress include the development of “eco-villages” in those coastal communities with especially large or active haenyeo organizations. An eco-village is a “living museum” in which the profession would continue but also be highlighted by educational and commercial facilities. The haenyeo themselves would be the key participants in such endeavors.
In addition to the actual diving and marine harvesting skills that these women possess, their knowledge of the sea, passed down through generations and finely tuned through each individual's decades of diving, is to be highly valued.
Related preservation efforts will also focus on this knowledge, with the potential for educational programs and publications, ecological preservation projects, “eochongye” collective economics models, “bulteok” forms of “town hall” governance, and more.
As world attention increasingly focuses on the haenyeo and their profession, complete with cultural attributes of community, mutual aid, egalitarianism, shamanism, mythology, and eco-friendly business practices, these women find themselves in the limelight.
A structured method of charging for media access, universally applied, could bring an additional source of revenue to the women whose sea would seem to be dying.
If the diving profession were once again among the more lucrative on Jeju, this time with an added layer of respect, it would do well to attract the young and continue its longevity.
One advantage of those societies developing as of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is that they can learn from and avoid the mistakes of others that developed before them. The “tiger economies” of South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong are prime examples.
So too with cultural preservation. Global value is currently being placed on indigenous wisdom, folk medicine, deep ecology, community bonds and mutual aid, collective economics, and tradition in general.
Rather than discarding and then scrambling to retrieve these features, Jeju has the option of preserving them now – before they are lost.
Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist living on Jeju Island. <Jeju Weekly>
<Anne Hilty firstname.lastname@example.orgⓒ Jeju Weekly All rights reserved>