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(News Focus) Jeju female divers added to UNESCO heritage list

2016/12/01 15:35

By Chung Joo-won

SEOUL, Dec. 1 (Yonhap) -- The women divers of Jeju Island are an emblem of female empowerment, with their diving culture making the world intangible heritage list Thursday.

The culture of "haenyeo," or sea women, was dubbed an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity during a session in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

A "haenyeo," or female diver, mends her fishing net at a port in the city of Seogwipo on South Korea's largest island of Jeju on Nov. 25, 2016. (Yonhap) A "haenyeo," or female diver, mends her fishing net at a port in the city of Seogwipo on South Korea's largest island of Jeju on Nov. 25, 2016. (Yonhap)

UNESCO added the all-female haenyeo culture to its heritage list, as the active females play a major role in holding their families together and have lifestyles that are in harmony with nature.

Japan also applied to have its culture of females divers be listed by UNESCO, but it wasn't selected. Unlike haenyeo, Japanese female sea divers "ama" require support from men, who are tasked with pulling the divers up to the surface.

South Korean experts estimate that haenyeo's all-female nature may have elevated it above "ama."

   Centuries ago, South Korean men also worked as sea divers, but they eventually died out in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) due to tyrannical courtiers exploiting them. As a result, the haenyeo culture remains a unique cultural rarity to this day, championing women who physically venture into the wild to feed their families.

A haenyeo collects shells and other marine products in waters off the city of Seogwipo on South Korea's largest island of Jeju on Nov. 25, 2016. (Yonhap) A haenyeo collects shells and other marine products in waters off the city of Seogwipo on South Korea's largest island of Jeju on Nov. 25, 2016. (Yonhap)

On Jeju Island, tourists can easily spot groups of haenyeo marching to the seaside to collect seashells, seaweed, abalone and other various sea goods. Each diver has her own buoyant basket that floats on the surface while she works below, and allows her to rest and regain her strength after dives.

They work about 15 days a month, when the waves are calm. Work hours vary depending on the weather: generally six to seven hours in summer and four to five in winter.

Haenyeo take home about 4-5 million won (US$3,223-$4,209) a month, with many earning extra by working at farms and rice paddies on their days off. In 2015, South Korea's per-capita gross national income (GNI) was $27,440, meaning haenyeo earn a good living here.

Aspiring haenyeo generally begin swimming and diving in shallow sea waters at about 7 years old. At around 15, the young divers become "aegi haenyeo," or baby sea women.

Even after growing up and gaining regular haenyeo status, the sea women hone their skills for sea diving and collecting, which is called "muljil," or water work. In the world of female divers, their status is based on their abilities. Their muljil skills earn them one of three ratings -- "sanggun," "junggun" or "hagun," with sanggun being the highest level.

For centuries, the sea women have learned to cherish the old teachings of their seniors. One common one is "Follow your breath instead of your eyes." The ancestral wisdom is a warning for many young haenyeo who stay too long below the surface to harvest seafood, risking their lives.

Haenyeo society is structured in a democratic way. The members make decisions as groups and elect their leader together.

A group of haenyeo is represented by "daesanggun haenyeo," or the arch-haenyeo, a post that requires unanimous consent from the divers. The arch-haenyeo is in charge of settling disputes within the group and with other groups of haenyeo in other villages. Therefore communication skills are the biggest requisite for becoming the daesanggun haenyeo.

A group of haenyeo warm up before diving into waters off Jeju Island on May 14, 2014. (Yonhap) A group of haenyeo warm up before diving into waters off Jeju Island on May 14, 2014. (Yonhap)

Haenyeo have experienced much strife throughout their history.

According to a book titled "Jiyoungrok," authored by the Jeju courtier Lee Ik-tae, there were about 800 haenyeo on Jeju in 1694. The number dramatically increased to about 8,400 in 1913.

Amid political turmoil from the imperialist powers that began in the late 19th century, Jeju haenyeo increasingly were driven out of Jeju, and plied their trade in Japan, China and Russia.

The outward movement was partly motivated by hopes for better-paid jobs. In a larger scope, however, Jeju haenyeo were pushed out of local waters by intruding Japanese sea divers and submarine fishing boats.

In haenyeo culture, territorial disputes among sea divers of different villages are handled by sanggun haenyeo. During Japan's colonial rule, however, this traditional way of democratic communication was blocked.

In the foreign waters, Jeju haenyeo worked hard for their families. In some regions, Jeju haenyeo dominated their Japanese counterparts by excelling in diving skills, stamina, organizing ability and competitiveness in labor cost.

Pictured on Jeju Island on July 9, 2014, is Chung So-young, 20, the youngest haenyeo. (Yonhap) Pictured on Jeju Island on July 9, 2014, is Chung So-young, 20, the youngest haenyeo. (Yonhap)

After Korean Liberation on Aug. 15, 1945, Jeju haenyeo regained their rights to freely work in their home waters. Consequently, the number of Jeju haenyeo reached a record high of around 23,000.

In the late 20th century, the number of Jeju haenyeo made a sharp decline, dipping to 7,800 in 1980, 5,800 in 2000 and 4,300 in 2015.

Regarding the decline, government institutions and think tanks cited the rise of the tourism industry on Jeju, increased opportunities for higher education for women and the movement to mainland cities for employment.

The decline has been surprisingly slow compared with the rates of decline for the overall fishing industry, according to the government data. However, it will likely rapidly increase in the coming years as the number of "silver haenyeo," who are 60 or older, account for 85.7 percent of the population.

The UNESCO's intangible cultural heritage committee discusses new additions to the heritage list at its meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Nov. 30, 2016 in Ethiopian time. (Yonhap) The UNESCO's intangible cultural heritage committee discusses new additions to the heritage list at its meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Nov. 30, 2016 in Ethiopian time. (Yonhap)

jwc@yna.co.kr

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