Who are regarded as the Korean mermaids?

The answer is: Haenyeo (해녀) of the Jeju Island.

Literally, the word “hae” (해) means “sea” and “nyeo” (녀) means “female”, and haenyeo are female divers who make a living by harvesting marine products like abalone, conch, octopus, sea urchins, oysters, clams, seaweed, etc. from the sea. Recently, there has been news that Jeju’s haenyeo culture is likely to be added to the UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.  What’s so special about Jeju’s haenyeo?  Let’s talk about them in this post.

Life as haenyeo

As mentioned above, haenyeo are female divers who make a living by harvesting marine products.  They wear old-fashioned headlight-shaped scuba masks, wet suits, gloves and flippers, and carry lead weights around their waist to help them sink faster.  The haenyeo put their harvest in floating nets which are attached to basketball-like round flotation devices.  Some haenyeo carry sharp L-shaped weeding hoes to dig the sea creatures from the hard seafloor.   Although a typical dive for haenyeo goes as deep as 20 to 40 feet underwater and takes about 2 to 3 minutes, haenyeo do not carry any breathing equipment. Once they come back to the surface of the sea, they make a whistling sound as they breathe out the carbon dioxide and breathe in fresh oxygen.  You can watch this video on a haenyeo at work.

Haenyeo on average work about 5 to 6 hours a day and dive into the sea for more than 100 times a day.  Some haenyeo even dive through pregnancy and there have been cases of haenyeo giving birth on boats during a day’s diving.  Therefore, haenyeo is an occupation which demands huge physical and mental strength, and subjects the body to severe pressure changes making haenyeo susceptible to heart attacks.  Moreover, there are also risks of bad weather, unexpected currents, and shark attacks. So, haenyeo is indeed a very tough and risky occupation.

Apart from diving, haenyeo also do the farm work (e.g., growing vegetables) and take care of their children during the day.  Because of the tiring and hard daily life, there has been a saying among haenyeo: “Better to be born a cow than a woman.”

Origin of haenyeo

According to historical records, diving was previously a job for the men on the Jeju Island until the 17th century when the Korean king conscripted a lot of men into the army but still demanded large amounts of abalone to be sent to him as tribute.  There are records that officials flogged the women, and even their parents, when they failed to pay taxes in abalone.  As a result, women were forced to become haenyeo.

Haenyeo culture

Over the years, haenyeo has developed a unique culture which makes them a valuable cultural heritage.

There is a strong communal spirit among haenyeo as they work in groups to ensure each other’s safety, and during breaks, they sit around a fire on the beach, drying their clothes, sharing food, and chatting.  So, haenyeo have great interest in social issues.  For example, during the colonial period, they organized a massive anti-Japanese movement against Japanese polices of exploitation and ethnic discrimination in 1932.  Today, haenyeo help preserve the ocean’s ecological environment, and their cooperatives operate seafood restaurants and shops.

As haenyeo are the chief breadwinners of their families, Jeju haenyeo enjoy more freedom and independence than other women in the Korean patriarchal society, and a semi-matriarchal culture has developed on the Jeju Island. For example, instead of brides providing a dowry which is the practice in other parts of South Korea, the men on the Jeju Island pay the family of the bride a dowry, and families prefer the birth of baby girls.  That said, men have still maintained the leadership roles in families, villages and politics.

There are also some traditions developed among the haenyeo such as songs that describe the hardships of their work.  Every February, haenyeo hold a ceremony in honour of the goddess of the winds.  You can watch a performance by haenyeo singing their songs by clicking this link.

For generations, the Haenyeo occupation and traditions have been passed down from mothers to daughters, and in the past, girls started to learn swimming at the age of 6-7 and worked as a haenyeo at the age of 17-18.  However, the haenyeo who are still at work on the Jeju Island are likely to be the last generation of haenyeo as nowadays the young generation prefer other occupations which are not so tough and risky (e.g., working in resort hotels and car rental companies on the island).  There were less than 2,400 haenyeo at the end of 2015 (vs. about 14,000 in the 1960’s) with half of them at the age of 70 or above – the youngest haenyeo is nearly 40 years old and the eldest haenyeo is over 90 years old.

To help keep the haenyeo culture, the Jeju government pays for their wet suits and subsidizes their medical and accident insurance. The government-financed shelters for haenyeo are equipped with heated floors and hot-water showers.  On the other hand, the haenyeo have also regulated themselves, for example, imposing voluntary no-harvest seasons, no-diving zones and monthly limits on the number of diving days to prevent over-harvesting.

Haenyeo School

Two haenyeo schools, namely the Jeju Hansupul Haenyeo School (established in 2008) and the Beophwan Haenyeo School (established in 2015), were set up for training haenyeo and preserving the haenyeo culture.

The Jeju Hansupul Haenyeo School was established to raise awareness of haenyeo culture and has already produced over 490 graduates so far, including five to six males each year. Students learn the history, life and culture of haenyeo and diving and harvesting skills directly from haenyeo for about four months. The competition for admission is very keen with more than 3 applicants per place. Foreigners may also apply for admission to this school.

On the other hand, the Beophwan Haenyeo School is more like a vocational school – it admits only women deciding to work as haenyeo and runs an apprenticeship system through which graduates can learn from their mentor haenyeo for five months. However, not every graduate can formally become a haenyeo in the job since this requires consent from all the haenyeo members of the relevant fishing village.  Moreover, for registration as a haenyeo, an applicant must pay on average between 1 million and 2 million won in membership fees, and pay an additional 1 million to 2.3 million won to the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives, a collective that provides support to fishermen and fishing villages. The registered haenyeo must also fish for at least 60 days in a year.

Haenyeo Museum (해녀박물관)

If you just want to learn more about haenyeo and do not want to go through a haenyeo school course which takes several months, you could visit the Haenyeo Museum on the Jeju Island.  The museum is located on the site where the anti-Japanese movement of haenyeo began.

In the museum, you can find exhibits relating to haenyeo’s daily life, for example, models of their homes, their daily diet, household tools, working tools and clothing, etc.  There are also an observation rest area in the museum with a nice view of the sea and exhibits relating to Jeju’s fishing industry culture.  In the large open area outside the museum, there is a memorial tower commemorating haenyeo’s anti-Japanese movement.

Jeju Haenyeo Festival (제주 해녀축제)

The Jeju Haenyeo Festival is held annually around end of September to early October and usually lasts for 2 days.  It is a good means to experience the haenyeo culture in an entertaining way.  Events are held at the Haenyeo Museum and its adjacent areas, and include conch-collecting competition by haenyeo school graduates, street parade of haenyeo from all around the island, singing contest of haenyeo, reading of autobiographies written by haenyeo and their families, catching conches and flatfish with bare hands on the beach and free admission to the Haenyeo Museum.  You can watch this video for some snapshots of the 2014 Jeju Haenyeo Festival.

Haenyeo in pop culture

In May 2016, there was a Korean movie called “Canola” or “Grandma Gyechun” (계춘할망 – Gyechunhalmang) which is the story about Gyechun (who is a haenyeo living on the Jeju Island) reuniting with her grand-daughter after 12 years of separation.  I find this movie very touching (really a tear-jerker for me) and you can watch the official trailer of this movie by clicking the link below:

“Canola” or “Grandma Gyechun” official trailer

On the other hand, haenyeo has been the occupation of some main characters in TV dramas like “My Mother, the Mermaid” (인어공주), “Tamra, the Island” (탐나는도다), and “Swallow the Sun” (태양을 삼켜라).

In my opinion, haenyeo deserve great respect and the haenyeo culture is worthy of preservation.  As mentioned in this post, there are different ways to learn more and/or experience the haenyeo culture and you can choose the ways that suit you most.

Reminder: The date of publication of the next post will be announced on the “Latest News” page of this website when it’s available. Or you can follow my blog by clicking the “Follow” button on the sidebar to receive email notifications of new posts.  For flash news on Korean culture, you can also follow me on Twitter (Kalbi8888).  

 

References:

Kim Hyung-eun, “Haenyeo get closer to recognition: Jeju’s indigenous female divers await the decision of Unesco Committee“, Korea JoongAng Daily, 2016-11-02

UNESCO likely to add haenyeo culture to list of intangible heritage of humanity“,  Arirang News, 2016-11-01

Shim Sun-ah, “Meet Jeju’s female divers in annual festival“, Yonhap News Agency, 2016-09-28

Simon Mundy, “The sea women of Jeju“, Financial Times, 2015-09-04

Andrea DenHoed, “The sea women of South Korea“, The New Yorker, 2015-03-29

Lee Sung-eun and Choi Chung-il, “New school of ‘sea women’“, Korea JoongAng Daily, 2014-06-04

Choe Sang-hun, “Hardy Divers in Korea Strait, ‘Sea Women’ Are Dwindling“, The New York Times, 2014-03-29

The Mermaids of Jeju – Korean Female Divers Haenyeo“, Korea Tourism Organization, 2008-01-22

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