Have you seen the Korean drama TAMRA THE ISLAND? (You can check out my review of that drama and my podcast by following this link). It is the only drama I can think of that portrays a very fascinating and culturally important slice of ancient Korean life – the Sea Women of Jeju Island , also known as Female Divers and Haenyeo.
I think this piece of Korean history is just so very interesting, and watching Tamra the Island inspired me to do a little bit of reading on the topic, and I have collated some info and quotes in this blog post.
I found this interesting article by Kdrama stars, and I have taken some excerpts as per the below:
If you’re watching [the Kdrama] “Warm and Cozy,” you have learned that most of the divers on Jeju Island are women. They are, in fact, known as the Mermaids of Jeju or Haenyeo. And women divers are part of an island tradition that dates back almost 2,000 years.
It’s not an easy job. These women dive in the ocean, using flippers and goggles, descending more than 20 feet into the icy water without breathing equipment. They gather the clams, seaweed, sea urchins and even the abalone that Kang So Ra was happy to find and that Yoo Yeon Suk so desperately wanted to feed his first love.
The Jeju Mermaids use a weeding hoe to dig up the shellfish that cling to the lava rocks and a net to hold their catch. They are really good at holding their breath and when they reach the surface make a whistling sound when they exhale.
In most of Korea families were traditionally eager to have a baby boy to carry on the family name but in Jeju Island the birth of girls has long been valued because girls became divers. Traditionally girls began gathering clams and abalone when they were around 10.Kdrama Stars Article
I know wikipedia may not be the greatest source for accurate information, but I did find this section regarding the society of Haenyeo to be very interesting:
Because so many families relied on the haenyeo for the majority of their income, a semi-matriarchal society developed on Jeju with the haenyeo at the head of the household. On the tiny islets off the coast of Jeju, such as Mara Island, where sea-diving was the sole source of income, this reversal of gender roles was taken to the extreme; men would look after the children and go shopping while the women would bring in money for the family. Other manifestations of Jeju’s unique society include men paying a dowry to the family of the bride (a reversal of the custom on the Korean mainland) and families celebrating the birth of girls over the birth of boys.
While certain elements of a matriarchal society surfaced in Jeju, they were not enough to completely overcome the predominance of Confucianism. As a result, beyond the domestic sphere, little else about Jeju society was different from what existed on the Korean mainland. For example, men filled all political leadership roles and were the only ones who could perform ancestor-worship ceremonies and inherit property and the familial line. Furthermore, during the era of colonial rule, haenyeo remained peasants, never moving up the chain to become small-business owners or managers of seafood manufacturing plants. Even in the home, most haenyeo remained the primary caregiver and handled at least half of the domestic chores.:107
Today, things have changed. The haenyeo are celebrated as one of Jeju’s most valued treasures. The Korean government shows its appreciation for the unique contributions of the haenyeo to Jeju’s culture by subsidizing their gear and granting them exclusive rights to sell fresh seafood. Furthermore, in March 2014, the government requested the UNESCO to add haenyeo to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list.Wikipedia Article
If you want to learn more, the author Lisa See (who tackled this topic in a fictional novel) has quite a lot of information she collected as research displayed on her website, including documentaries and photos. you can find it by following this link.
And I guess that is it. there is quite a lot of info out there about Haenyeo, but I hope you found this interesting as a taster.
I find the topic fascinating.
To Learn More about Haenyeo:
If you want to know more about the female divers of Korea, you can check out the following:
- Tamra the Island – Kdrama
- Warm and Cozy – Kdrama
- The Island of the Sea Women by Lisa See – Novel
Do you know anything about this topic? Please let me know if I have missed anything! Or are you interested now, after reading this? Let me know your thoughts!
Thank you for reading, please feel free to leave a comment below!
LEE EVIE is a podcaster, blogger and author of dark historical fiction set in old Korea.
Lee Evie’s historical fiction novels!