- Jeju - Jeju Culture
In Jeju Island, there is a community of women, some aged in their 80s, which goes diving 10m under the sea to gather shellfish, such as abalone or sea urchins for a living without the help of oxygen masks.
With knowledge of the sea and marine life, the Jeju haenyeo (female divers) harvest for up to seven hours a day, 90 days of the year holding their breath for just one minute for every dive and making a unique verbal sound when resurfacing.
Divers are categorized into three groups according to level of experience: hagun, junggun and sanggun with the sanggun offering guidance to the others. Before a dive, prayers are said to the Jamsugut, goddess of the sea, to ask for safety and an abundant catch.
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.
Knowledge is passed down to younger generations in families, schools, local fishery cooperatives which have the area’s fishing rights, haenyeo associations, The Haenyeo School and Haenyeo Museum. 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.
Designated by the provincial government as representing the island’s character and people’s spirit, the culture of Jeju haenyeo has also contributed to the advancement of women’s status in the community and promoted environmental sustainability with its eco-friendly methods and community involvement in management of fishing practices.
At the 11th Session of the Intergovernmental Committee of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, held on November 30th, 2016, the decision was made to inscribe the culture of Jeju haenyeo (women divers) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. 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.
Article Copyright © UNESCO and Yonhap News Agency Photo Copyright © Jeju Special Self-Governing Province