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Sea Study by ikkibawiKrrr

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Sea Study
2023.12.16. 10AM
3F, 11, Chilseongno-gil, Jeju-si, Jeju-do, Republic of Korea

Lecturer: Moon Bong-soon
Planning: ikkibawiKrrr,Shin Hyunjung, Kang Minsoo

The professions "Haenyeo" and "Simbang" occupy an important place in understanding the lives of Jeju women. In this place where women live as a base of their lives, there were not many options except for the occupation of haenyeo, and it is Simbang who has lived with them comforting their uneasy lives. This lecture begins with stories about Jeju shamanistic rituals ("Jeju gut") and the life of haenyeo, expanding to today's Jeju, which is changing due to climate crises and development. The focus is on the retired haenyeo living in the "presidential world," discussing topics such as the haenyeo gut performed with simbang, the economic aspect of haenyeo, desires surrounding the sea, haenyeo's resistance, and the future of haenyeo

The lives of retired haenyeo in the “president’s world” of today

[Note from the translator: Footnotes that begin with an asterisk were added by the translator. Direct quotes from haenyeo, which are in Jeju dialect in the Korean source text, have been translated into standard American English.]

Haenyeo and simbang are two occupations that are crucial to understanding the lives of Jeju women. In Jeju, the sea is the site of one’s everyday life. Jeju women had few options in terms of livelihood outside of becoming haenyeo; simbang are the shamans who provided haenyeo comfort and consolation throughout their precarious lives. The first time I met haenyeo was at the Yeongdeunggut ceremony[1]. At the time, I was more interested in simbang and Jejugut ceremonies than in haenyeo and their lives. But over time, I came to understand that all these things are linked within the context of Jeju women’s lives. Once I’d grasped that, I began to ask the women I met about their lives, whether they were haenyeo samchun[2] or simbang elders.

The haenyeo I met during my research were both friendly and brusque. They were both content and dissatisfied with their current lives. But watching them give their all in times of crisis, facing each day head on, gave me the strength to continue living in Jeju.

“I used to be embarrassed about muljil[3] (working as haenyeo). That’s why mothers used to sing those songs – why did my mother give birth to me, and so forth… These days, we get our photos taken, people come from abroad and from the provincial government, and Jeju has been designated as a world natural heritage site. Now I think, I’ve worked hard all my life.”
– Jang Gwangja (Goseong-ri, Seongsan-eup, b. 1943)

Haenyeo samchun say that this current era is a “president’s world”. The years during which they had to hear their in-laws mutter “She’s an ordinary person like us,” upon their first meeting, when they had to endure people calling them “haenyeo bitches” – these times have passed. Now haenyeo have been registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, media outlets clamor to meet haenyeo, and the provincial government offers them funding. Compared to the past when haenyeo struggled against contempt, disdain, and rough seas, they are treated like “the president” now, they live in a “president’s world”. However, haenyeo continue to battle against countless enemies, whether visible or not, in the present day.

Haenyeogut rituals with Simbang and Bosal (Buddhist Women)

I first began meeting with haenyeo to research their spiritual practices. In Jeju, a shaman called simbang leads shamanistic rituals. Each village has a Bonhyangdang to honor the village’s guardian spirit, and separate shrines for specific spirits. The village gut rites are performed several times a year. In seaside villages where haenyeo and fishermen live, several kinds of gut aside from the Yeongdeunggut are performed, such as the Haenyeogut, Jamsugut (Gut for Divers), and Poongeoje rites to pray for safety at sea and abundant fish.

When I saw the Yeongdeunggut in 2003 and 2004, there were many regulars at the ceremony. It was difficult for me to take photos in the small shrine for fear it’d be disruptive. Because there were both regulars and simbang who were orthodox in their methods, the gut was carried out in an orderly manner, according to tradition. But in 2022, about twenty years since, I’ve noticed that the Haenyeogut has changed a lot. Gut ceremonies are taking place in new locations, thanks to funding from the Haenyeo Cultural Heritage Division of the Jeju provincial government. But because some haenyeo don’t have a simbang they have been working with, it is difficult to hold the ceremonies at the designated dates, and it is hard for the older haenyeo to prepare for the rites. Many end up seeking simbang who are willing to perform a shortened gut at a lower cost to accommodate their needs.

In the case of Onpyeong-ri in Seongsan-eup, various community rituals have been passed down to the present day, including the Maeulpoje (rites for the well-being of the village), the Bonhyangdangje (prayers to the village guardian spirit), and the Haenyeogut. But in some villages where the Dangmansimbang[4] (the shaman in charge of the village shrine) has passed away, a beopsa (Buddhist monk) from the village may perform the rites, creating an odd scene. The beopsa may oversee the gut, but call a simbang to perform just the Yongwangmaji (celebration of the king of the seas), the essential part of the Jejugut. Instead of dancing to the rhythms of the daeyang, seolswe, drum, and other yeonmul (ceremonial instruments), the performer dances to the sound of the drum and gong played by the beopsa alone. Haenyeo opinions on such changes are divided. There are younger haenyeo who place greater importance on the fact that the gut is being performed at all, and there are regulars who are dissatisfied by the new ceremonies’ deviance from tradition. However, older haenyeo who are no longer active in the sea harvest do not speak out. They cannot help but acquiesce to the opinions of younger people.

This phenomenon is not unique to Seongsan-eup. In Daejeong-eup, where shamanistic practices declined earlier on, it is not uncommon to find that young, resourceful bosal have taken over the role of the Simbang. This is the case on nearby islands such as Mosul, Mara, and Gapa Islands. Simbang Mun Taebong is a longtime practitioner in the Seogwipo area. He doesn’t have the best voice, but he is a good drummer, and he dries the gime props[5] and prepares the sacrificial offering more meticulously than women do. His regulars appreciated his neatness and efficiency, but he says he has fewer opportunities to perform gut nowadays because he has been replaced by bosal.

These days, Haenyeogut usually take about a day or a half-day, but up until a few years ago, it wasn’t unusual for ceremonies to last two to three days. In Onpyeong-ri, the ceremony used to be held for two days, on February 12th and 13th by the lunar calendar, but four or five years ago, the rites were shortened to be held only on the 13th. The ceremony has become abridged due to there being fewer haenyeo and more non-believers. For a two-day gut, preparations would begin three days in advance. The morning before, participants would soak rice in water, go to the mill with this rice to make flour, and make dolle-tteok cakes. Other ceremonial food and drinks would be prepared in advance as well.

On the first day, the chogamje (gut addressing all gods) along with the basic rites would be held. The Yongwangmaji took place on the second day. The night of the first day of ceremonies, haenyeo would play music and dance. With the right yeonmul players, everyone would feel excited. Sometimes people would even bring a karaoke machine. The sanggun (most experienced) haenyeo would tie a band around their heads and collect donations from the participants so that they could buy a small gift for everyone, even if it was simply shampoo. Dancing late into the night also meant people would get hungry, so the Sangdong and Hadong areas would take turns serving people buckwheat noodles or sujebi dumplings in warm soup. But once the gut was shortened to a day, the festivities of the haenyeo disappeared, with only the ritual remaining.

Muljil is no longer enough: the economy of the haenyeo

There was a time when seaweed was money. Before the introduction of farmed miyeok seaweed, miyeok collected from Jeju seas was dried into rectangular units called nang[6] and sold in Busan, Mokpo, and other cities on the peninsula. At that time, there were many large abalone, but no market for them, so catching them did not translate into earnings. In addition to miyeok, gamtae and umugasari were also profitable seaweeds. Dokgodal[7] and gojang grass[8] are seaweeds used for decoration in high-end sashimi restaurants. Only sanggun haenyeo could harvest it because they grow in the deep sea. At one point, they were quite valuable and a good source of income.

"I gathered a lot of dokgodal too. Dokgodal, that started back when we had the first leader of the fishing community. That person died at forty-nine. But they got government funding to deposit some rocks, they took those rocks to what’s now called Dumunpo Seongchangwi, over here there isn’t any sand, so they put those rocks there. In the year that they were deposited, there wasn’t anything there, but the year after a lot of dokgodal had grown. Now not even the Japanese eat dokgodal, but back then they were 7,000 won per kilo. So I gathered a hundred kilos a day.”
- Hyeon Soon-deok (Jongdal-ri, Gujwa-eup, b.1947)

The Japanese occupation opened up new markets for conch and abalone. An entire economic ecosystem formed around the haenyeo, including merchants who sold haenyeo’s harvest.

Yoon Soon-hwa (from Jongdal-ri, Gujwa-eup, b.1946) samchun was born in Jongdal-ri and also married there. She didn't do muljil for very long, but her in-laws had a business selling haenyeo harvests, so she knew a lot about the workings of these trades. Back in her day, no one bought conch and there was no market for it in Korea, so it was all canned then taken to Japan. At night, she’d boil and clean the conch the haenyeo had gathered, then take it to the cannery in Seongsanpo, where it was canned and exported to Japan. Later, fishing collectives would make a joint purchase or individual traders would make purchases. Briefly, she even canned sea cucumbers to sell to Chinese customers.

She also sold live abalone in Busan, at the Jagalchi market. She would collect the abalone haenyeo had caught over the course of five, six days in a small net along the Dumunpo shoreline. When enough abalone had been gathered, a ship would depart with several nets in tow. It had to stop every so often on an island to feed the abalone. Her husband accompanied his father on these abalone trips from the time he was in 4th grade up to his high school years, so he had been to all sorts of islands, from Yeowoo to Chungsan.

With the establishment of the fisheries cooperative and joint purchasing, the haenyeo didn't have to worry about the market for conch. However, a few years ago, relations between Korea and Japan deteriorated, and they were unable to sell their conch to Japan. The haenyeo called it the “haenyeo's IMF”[9]. The seasonal bans on harvesting had been lifted, but they couldn't catch any conch because there wasn’t any place to sell them. Today's haenyeo find it difficult to make a living out of muljil alone. The economy of haenyeo, which used to be based on muljil and farm work, is also diversifying as the world changes.

Jang Kwang-ja (b.1943), a haenyeo from Goseong-ri, Seongsan-eup, still works as a sanggun haenyeo. She makes a living not only from appearing on TV and interviews, but also from performing in aquariums. Initially, more than 40 haenyeo went to the aquarium to perform, but some could not dive because of the depth of the water, or because they were frightened by the fish. This led to 18 sanggun haenyeo being selected and working in groups of two per day. The haenyeo performance takes place for 20 minutes, four times a day. Haenyeo dive deep and swim up to the surface, pretend to pick abalone, and wave to the audience. Each haenyeo is given three turns per month to perform. At first, Hanwha, the conglomerate operating the aquarium, paid the women, but later on the provincial government gave them a subsidy because they no longer wanted to hire the haenyeo. Jang was paid 70,000 won, 100,000 won, 110,000 won, per performance until performances took a break due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now she receives 95,000 won after taxes — 55,000 won from the Hanwha Group, plus a state subsidy.

Muljil has long been an important part of the haenyeo economy. In recent years, Jeju seas have rapidly become polluted, so some Jeju haenyeo travel to the peninsula, to different regional seas for work. There is nothing to catch in the Jeju seas, so they go to the land.

Song Myeong-ja (Onpyeong-ri, Seongsan-eup, b. 1967) grew up in Jeju before moving to Anheung, Taean-gun, Chungcheong-do with her husband at the age of 20. At 21, eight months after giving birth to her eldest child, she began muljil in earnest, on a ship. She spent five years as a member of this ship, then moved to Jeju and learned how to do Jeju muljil again. Around the time her child was in middle school, she returned to the peninsula to do muljil there for two years. Then, after she and her husband opened a restaurant, she thought she would need to have another profitable skill in the case that the restaurant closed, so she learned how to dive. She thought it would be worth learning while she was still young, as it took just three months of training. Diving turned out to be a fairly well-paying gig. She usually only dives in the spring, but if someone is looking for a substitute, she also goes in the fall. It’s been about four years since she’s been traveling to Daecheon, on the west coast of Korea, for such work. Women divers specialize in sea cucumbers, and the men catch shellfish.

Haenyeo can no longer make a living solely out of selling what they’ve gathered from the sea. A few years ago, Kim Nyeongyi, a fishing community leader, persuaded the haenyeo leader to find another livelihood. “We have to find another way to make ends meet,” Kim said, so a group went on a field trip to a shellfish farm. Villagers in Beobhwan-dong were one of the first to open a haenyeo school and a haenyeo experience center. Some haenyeo choose to work in the tangerine fields instead of the sea and earn a daily wage, while others open their own restaurants that advertise their haenyeo background. Some make money as haenyeo performers.

It seems that the days of working as a haenyeo for a living are coming to an end. The next chapter seems to focus on creating and selling cultural content using the various skills and cultures acquired through the profession. Those who have the talent to keep up with the times have found new sources of income even after retirement, but those who only know how to work at sea face a difficult road ahead. Of course, they have money they’ve saved up and some support from the government, but relying on these supports will lack the sense of dignity and pride they had during the years they raised their children solely on their earnings from work at sea.

Seaside ambitions and Haenyeo resistance

The year 2022 marks the 90th anniversary of the Haenyeo protests against Japanese occupation. The struggle to preserve haenyeo livelihoods is still ongoing. Haenyeo samchun say, "Aigo, it’s better to go to the sea than to my mother’s arms.” Rather than go borrow rice from one’s mother’s family, who are just as poor, it’s better to go into the sea with nothing but your body to rely on. Haenyeo also call the ocean “eomeongpum” (mother’s bosom); this entity that feeds them and washes away their worries. The ocean that was once so generous to haenyeo is now becoming a battlefield where many people's interests intersect.

In Woljeong-ri and Hamo-ri, haenyeo are fighting to stop the construction of a sewage treatment plant. In Woljeong-ri, the protests against the construction of the Eastern Sewage Treatment Plant began in 1987, and since 2018, the entire village, led by haenyeo, have been participating in the protest against the expansion of the Eastern Sewage Treatment Plant, as sea pollution threatens their livelihoods as the daily throughput increased from 12,000 tons to 24,000 tons in 2017. However, in October 2021, after being informed that the plant would be expanded again, haenyeo in their 70s and 80s stayed up all night in front of the sewage treatment plant to prevent construction vehicles from entering.

On Jeju's neighboring islands, conflicts between haenyeo and ship owners have been escalating over the issue of ferries that travel between islands. On Mara and Biyang Islands, haenyeo protests blocked a ferry from docking, and 14 haenyeo from Biyang were put on probation and fined. In Seogwipo Port, haenyeo protested underwater against the construction of a marine leisure experience center, and in Hallim, Handong, and Pyeongdae areas, they protested against the construction of an offshore wind power plant.

"We used to work near Udo, where we could always catch a few abalone per day. Even now, on a day we can catch a kilogram of conch here, we can get tens of kilograms there. With the breakwater installed, there are ferries and fishing boats going back and forth so even if there’s stuff for us to harvest, we can't do it. If we go to the coast guard and tell them we’ll take us two hours a day at most, maybe every two or three days if there isn’t much. But they won't let us work. Isn’t that the same as saying the people who own the ferries should make a living but we should die? The batyeo island is the most abundant of areas so even if we don’t stay for a whole hour, we can gather enough to fill a mangsari net or two. But if we work here, the ships go round and round and watch us. The ferries don’t give us any leeway at all. They report us to the coast guard."
- Kim Kyung-ae (Ojo-ri, Seongsan-eup, b. 1955)

All the Ojo-ri haenyeo want is to be allowed to work once or twice a month, for two to three hours, depending on the tide. However, ship owners want to prevent any accidents, so they call the coast guard whenever they see haenyeo.

In Sehwa-ri, Pyeseon-myeon, the haenyeo were in the middle of a discussion about extending the hose of a fish farm. When the fishing community leader, a man, suggested that the farmers could be trusted to do a fine job at it, the haenyeo retorted, "What do you know, when you don't even go into the water? People who move in the sea would know, not the people who are in the field.” The haenyeo’s request was that the hose avoid crossing over the area that haenyeo work in; it’d have to be installed with a bent, since it had to go below rather than above the rocky area where haenyeo make their harvest.

A speech about the difficulties of living as a haenyeo followed. Compared to the past, haenyeo earn a third of what they used to from muljil, so they spend less and less time at sea and more time in the fields. But this isn’t entirely due to fisheries–this phenomenon has many causes. Sehwa-ri has a river, so the damage to the sea is even greater. The river waters contain garbage from northern regions and harsh pesticides from a golf course. This may be why only the Sehwa-ri villagers attended the river maintenance information meeting, in order to protest.

Haenyeo in their 70s and 80s ask that they be allowed to make their living from the sea for just ten more years. People who work on land receive government funds when they catch the coronavirus, but for haenyeo there isn’t any support. Sure, they are given wetsuits and flippers, and these are good, but because the sea is becoming barren, it is hard to make ends meet. The government pours funding into haenyeo schools, to train a new generation of haenyeo, but how many actually take on the profession? They ask why the government can’t directly invest in the haenyeo of each village instead.

In 2020, there was news that the Haenyeo Cultural Heritage Division was being reduced and consolidated due to budget cuts. Again, it was the haenyeo themselves who defended the division.

"That's why we prevented the integration of the Haenyeo Culture and Heritage Department by protesting one day. We went with our tewak buoys and wetsuits and everything. If it didn't work, we’d go again the next day. That's what the haenyeo do. There's a thing called the haenyeo protest. Remember the one in Jocheon? In my mother's time, there was no elementary school because the building burned down. So we banned any harvesting at the Aegijukeunnal Rock and Seogeunyeo Rock, we said these are the school seas. We harvested miyeok seaweed there and with that money we built the schoolhouse. That’s why it’s called the school seas.”
- Lee Jee-bok (Onpyeong-ri, Seongsan-eup, b.1956)

The word 'development' has caused a lot of change in Jeju, especially its nature and culture. The reality that haenyeo face today is also related to this development. Haenyeo are fighting against various development projects surrounding the sea. However, there is a strong sense of ownership of the sea. This sense of ownership makes them want to protect their workplace, the sea, more than anyone else, but we must also consider their desire to be fairly compensated for any development that leads to profits.

The future of haenyeo

The Jeju seas are now being exploited beyond their limits. I've even heard Jeju referred to as the "frontline of the climate crisis”. When you talk to the haenyeo, you realize that Jeju's oceans do not have much left.

"I was born in 1953, so I've been working in the sea here for over 50 years. We have been able to survive because of the sea. But now it's not just us, the entire Jeju Sea is empty. There is also efflorescence, but there is no grass at all. Even miyeok seaweed doesn't grow well in the margins. This year, there was a little seaweed in the deepest part of our sea. The seaweed used to grow so much that it formed a forest of seaweed, but now it is gone. When the sea was healthy, the sea at Shinpung-ri used to have abalone, sea cucumber, conch, and fish, too, we even caught them with harpoons. But now there aren’t any."
- Kang Sook-ja (Shinpung-ri, Seongsan-eup, b.1953)

"It’s like we can’t revive the sea. Last year, when they said they were going to plant gamtae seaweed, the divers and all those people came and planted it, alright. But it didn't work at all. There's no grass in the sea, that’s why there aren’t any shellfish or other living things either. Now we gather tiny bomal conch. There's nothing else, so a little bomal comes out to 700,000 won. We like working as haenyeo so we’ve continued, but now the seas are so empty. It's like everything is dissolving. And there is no collaboration."
- Song Geum-yeon (Samdal-ri, Seongsan-eup, b.1945)

These are stories you can hear in any village on Jeju Island now. The sea is full of whitened corals, all the seagrass has melted away, and there are conchs, abalone, sea urchins, worms, cotton wool, and cormorants that have no food or place to hide. Raw sewage, fertilizer, and pesticides flow in from the fields, from the fish farms to the golf courses, all pouring into the sea.

Whenever I meet a haenyeo samchun, the last question I always ask is "How long will you keep working in the sea?" Each time, the answer I get is "As long as there are things to harvest, haenyeo will not disappear." Even if someone is a diver rather than a haenyeo, they believe they could continue as long as the sea offers anything to harvest. There are many people working to protect haenyeo and preserve their culture. The answer to this issue is not a haenyeo school or subsidies, but the revitalization of the haenyeo economy. And the way to do that is to restore the sea, which is alive with things that can be turned into money. It's sad that people pretend not to understand that if they protect the sea, the space for everyday life for Jeju people, their culture will be preserved by extension.

Moon Bong-soon (Research Director, Jeju Island Culture Institute)
The above article was originally published in Jeju Writer issue 78, Fall 2022.

[1] A ritual held in the second lunar month to pray for calm seas, an abundant harvest and a plentiful sea catch. “Gut” is the Korean word for shamanistic ceremony, and can be affixed to various nouns. e.g. Haenyeogut (a gut for haenyeo)[2] Samchun is a friendly term of address specific to Jeju, used by a younger person to call an elder.[3] “Muljil” combines the nouns “mul” (water) and “jil”(a suffix meaning “work” or “action” with a derogatory nuance). Translated literally, it could be called “water work”, and the work of haenyeo is often contrasted with the work done on land (“mut” in Korean), as well as the work of other sea divers.[4] In the past, when there were many simbang, each village had its own Dangmansimbang. Nowadays, one simbang is often in charge of multiple villages.[5] Small props made with paper and bamboo which decorate the ceremonial site or are used in the gut itself.[6] “Nang” is Jeju dialect for “tree”. The wide branches of the seaweed are cut into long squares and dried, which are called “miyeok nang” or “gwakmiyeok”.[7] “Dokgodal” is the Jeju haenyeo’s name for seaweed papulosa, known as “galaegombo” in standard Korean. A type of red algae, it seems to have earned its name due to its similarity to a cockscomb. (“Dokgodal” means “chicken's crest” in Jeju dialect.) It grows in deeper waters than does the crested red leaf, and was exported to Japan along with crested red leaf to be used as a decoration for sashimi.[8] A type of red algae whose scientific name is “Callophyllis japonica Okamura”. It became an important seaweed for haenyeo as it began to be used as garnish for sashimi in Japan. “Gojang” is Jeju dialect for “flower”; it seems to have been named so because the reddish stems and leaves of the plant resemble blossoms.[9] In Korea, “IMF” or the “IMF crisis” is synonymous with severe economic recession. In the late 1990s, Korea was one of the last countries affected by the Asian Financial Crisis, and the repercussions are felt to this day.