Off the coast of Jeju Island, 60 miles south of mainland Korea, a community of female divers between the ages of 30 and 80 don wetsuits and goggles and plunge into unpredictable waters. Capable of withstanding fast-moving tides and weighing 15 pounds (7 kilograms) of lead, this haenyeo (literally translated as “women of the sea”) dive 66 feet (20 meters) underwater without the aid of breathing apparatus to collect sea bubbles, seaweed, and seaweed. This freediving is extremely risky, but is possible thanks to an ancient technique called breathing sumbissorior “breath sound”.
Jeju’s diver women have been the backbone of the island’s economy for centuries (before the more recent tourism boom), selling their products to merchants on the island and peninsula. Jeju diver and single mother Chae Jiae said in an interview for the podcast Jeju people that haenyeo’s ecology is not only about protecting the ocean as a source of income. Rather, it is a symbiotic relationship of mutual protection. “We share what we have,” Chae said. “It’s haenyeo and the sea.”
Eschewing the patriarchal neo-Confucian values that have defined the social order of mainland Korea since the late 13th century, Jeju haenyeo are revered as a matriarchal society that values and protects the environment. Because of Haenyeon’s dangerous and unconventional occupation (in addition to being a mother, grandmother, and head of household), Western geographers have long extolled women’s physical exceptionalism, comparing them to female warrior “Amazons” and even mermaids. Haenyeo has also received scientific praise for its unparalleled ability to hold its breath for more than two minutes and withstand the heat of cold water.
For Haenyeo, it is true that the body keeps score. Divers’ skin is weathered by the sea and sun, their joints ache long after they come off the dive, and their bodies have been adapted to mothers and daughters drowning in the sea for centuries. But haenyeo should not be recognized as a model of female empowerment solely for physical prowess, martyrdom, or the ability to provide for their families. Rather, we can note how haenyeo has historically responded to crises and prevailed as a unified body through community-led resistance.
The struggle for autonomy
Since the late 19th century, Jeju women divers have clashed with Japanese fishermen who traveled to the island in search of better seafood and then overfished Jeju waters while earning significantly higher wages than the divers. The Japanese empire annexed Korea in 1910, and during the 35 years of occupation that followed, the haenyeo faced challenges to their survival and collective well-being as colonial subjects and laborers. As the Japanese rapidly commercialized the Korean fishing industry, the haenyeo formed the first Jamsu (“Diving”) Cooperative Association in 1920 to protect themselves from Japanese control.
When a large union was taken over by union-busting Japanese officials, haenyeo formed local, independent chapters of these member organizations. jamsuhoe. This autonomous organization of women divers, included in local cooperatives, was important in the formation of national and anti-imperialist consciousness during the Japanese occupation.
Jamsuhoe became a unit for mobilizing the haenyeon’s collective discontent when the Japanese government increasingly controlled the fishing industry, which exploited divers. In January 1932, haenyeo organized anti-corruption demonstrations at the Jamsu Cooperative Union, which had an exclusive and illegal contract with a Japanese company selling haenyeo’s product at 40% below market price. In response, the women’s diving coalition organized hundreds of resistance meetings and demonstrations.
At one of the demonstrations in the village of Sehwa, divers took action jonggae homi (hoes were used to gather seaweed) and bitch (The scythes were harvesting fish) and shouted: “If you answer our demands with the sword, we will answer with death!” The police tried to drive through the protesters, but the crowd surrounded the car and blocked it. These protests, which drew more than 17,000 participants, successfully inserted haenyeon into the public sphere as vocal political institutions. Both the press and colonial historians noted the protests as an act of resistance by women workers that was unparalleled throughout Korea’s colonial rule. It was also the largest protest by fishing industry workers in Korea. By successfully navigating multifaceted power structures and raising their voices against exploitative conditions, these women not only gave birth to new models of women’s empowerment, but also models of Korean independence. it’s your fault The (“New Woman”) movement in modernizing South Korea.
In the late 1940s, after the end of Japanese rule, the Korean peninsula became a battleground for ideological and territorial conflict between the Soviet Union, which occupied the north, and the United States, which controlled the south. Residents of Jeju protested the US military occupation as well as the proposed division of the Korean peninsula. Their protests were met with a government-sanctioned massacre on April 3, 1948, in which Korean soldiers and police used a ground strategy of indiscriminately burning entire unarmed civilian villages. An estimated 30,000 Jeju (10% of the population at the time) were killed during the four-month offensive. For example, a fishing village on the Bukchon coast became known as the “Widow Village” because most of the surviving residents were women and children. In order to find a way to provide for themselves, Bukchon developed a strong haenyeo culture and continues to this day.
Hierarchy of care
With a spirit of shared responsibility, jamsuhoe has been managing risks, coordinating actions, and informing the public about haenyeo-related issues for more than half a century. To maintain internal order and solidarity, these regional diving collectives are structured as democratic decision-making bodies that operate through discussion and consensus.
After diving, the women gather in a shelter around a bonfire called a bulteok with the produce of the day to discuss personal matters and community policies. This naturally fosters camaraderie, but each haenyeo still has its own destination, with the most central spot reserved for the most experienced haenyeo. When haenyeo discuss issues related to reefs or harvesting, those with the most wisdom on the subject lead.
The collective body is also divided into hierarchies that reflect diving expertise to enhance the safety of its members. Pak Sam-yang, a Jeju diver, recalls an incident when he was a child when he swam too far and was caught by a wave. “It must have been taller than a mountain because I couldn’t see the sky,” he says. Fortunately, an old woman swimming behind the rest was able to spot and pull out the unconscious Puck as a diver. The tight-knit community of Haenyeon is based on this careful, albeit hierarchical, care. Divers identify a certain area of the sea where the water is shallow and calm don’t worry (“grandmother’s sea”), which allows elderly and sick divers to work and earn money without putting themselves at great risk. They also separated the area called divers hakkyo badang (or “school sea”), where proceeds from the product are donated to local schools. Knowledge of diving, rich harvest sites and sumbisori techniques is still matrilineally passed down through the generations. Haenyeo also has special trade schools to preserve the traditional diving practices unique to Jeju Island.
Through this organized structure, the haenyeo have been able to develop deep-rooted practices of mutual aid and community investment to serve each other, the island, and the wider environment.
Today, haenyeo are also heirs to an immediate and long-term environmental crisis, facing warmer, more polluted waters and endangered marine life. The average yield per diver has declined dramatically over the years. Chae Jiae, whose mother is also a haenyeo, said that one diver used to catch 331 pounds (150 kilograms) of skates a day, but now he only catches 44 pounds (20 kilograms). The sardine population has also been completely removed from South Korean waters due to both climate change affecting migration patterns and overfishing by Japanese fishing vessels.
Still, the haenyeo organize themselves as protectors of the island and the sea. Collectively, the haenyeo decide how to limit the days and hours they dive to avoid overfishing. During the breeding seasons of marine life, haenyeo completely avoids harvesting to allow the finite species to reproduce. They’ve even reseeded the ocean’s shellfish, a process of fertilizing the ocean with iron dust to boost phytoplankton growth, which in turn boosts the fish supply. Young haenyeo regularly dive into the water to remove trash from the sea, including plastic, fishing nets, bottles and other human waste. At the same time, the number of haenyeo, especially young haenyeo, is dwindling. Their population has declined dramatically, from 23,081 divers in 1965 (representing 21.2% of Jeju City’s female population) to 2,500 active divers in 2015. More than 98% of active haenyeo are over 50 years old. A haenyeo will dedicate his life to water and continue his knowledge for a retirement pension when the haenyeo is matched until age 80.
The threat of cultural and social extinction is obvious, paralleling the danger of the environment. Recognizing women as environmental stewards and community leaders, UNESCO listed Jeju haenyeon as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2016. This fluid and multifaceted list recognizes both the dangers and the value of generational knowledge and experiences in the face of globalization and social transformation. Haenyeo’s place on the list sends a clear message to the international community about the importance of cooperation and contributing resources to safeguard the future of Jeju haenyeo.
On any given day along the coast of Jeju, one can hear the high-frequency vocal utterances of the haenyeon emerging from the water to breathe. In addition to its translation as “breathing sound”, sumbisori can also be translated to evoke the feeling of “coming forward”. Haenyeo researcher Cha Hyek-young suggests that sumbisori sounds are charged with trauma and suffering, “a marker of a historical event and the potential to function as a non-verbal transmitter of memory, resistance, rising above circumstances”. With an aggressive inhale and rapid exhale over the sounds of the ocean, today’s and tomorrow’s haenyeo continue to triumph together.
is a Bay Area-based writer, multimedia journalist, and Korean American scholar. He is a recent graduate of Bowdoin College, where he served as editor-in-chief Fundamentalist literary journal. worked at a place called Los Angeles Review of Books and Guernica.