A New Look at Korean Gender Roles: Cheju Women as World Cultural Heritage

Dr. Chang Hoon Ko

Cheju National University, Korea

The aim of this article is to illuminate how Cheju women give an example of equitable gender roles in Cheju Island, different from and beyond the scheme of the traditional Confucian stereotype of the Korean women’s role, which was limited to being submissive, demure, domestic and dependent in all of sectors of politics, economics and social spheres.

First of all, it is wonderful that Cheju women divers (Haenyeo or Jamnyeo), who have harvested shellfish, abalone, and seaweed with their original diving skill in the near off-shore and in the deep sea for over 1700 years, have attained their achievements and overcome challenges on their way. They can dive as deep as 15 to 20 meters, and stay under water for around three minutes without the aid of breathing equipment. Politically, they organized voluntary associations, called Jamsuhoi, that decide local village issues through democratic voting. Through their power, they were able to maintain a four-month long uprising (January-April 1932) against the illegal management of products of sea village by the Japanese Empire. Economically, they were able to support their households and educate their family members through income gained by selling products to markets. In addition, since 1895 these daring women regularly went abroad seasonally, to earn money at sea in such regions as China, Japan and the mainland Korean peninsula. Through their income and economic management of common village sea areas, they have contributed to not only to survival of family households but also to improving the prosperity of village and island economy as a whole. They also created and developed their folklore, traditional rituals, and festivals that animate their hard and wandering, Gypsy-like life in the deep sea.

Secondly, I want to give an explanation of how and with what power of skills Cheju women divers set up their Diaspora in Korean peninsula and Japan, as an exceptional case in the context of Northeastern Asian culture. These divers have migrated all over East Asia. Their migration and settlements, especially in the Korean Peninsula and Japan, are highly accepted for their special skills, and for the higher economic value of the products they catch in those areas. This is possibly explained by the economic gap between Cheju Island, Korea, and Japan under the influence of Japanese capitalism. For example, in Japan, they would spend the winter in Osaka, work spring and fall seasons in Tsushima, and would visit their native Cheju Island, to keep their cultural identity, during the break between winter and fall. They have set up their pole of Island Diaspora in all areas of the Korean Peninsula: 10 places in Japan and two spots on Mainland China, with only their working skills over 110 years.

Thirdly, I add more emphasis that Cheju women divers have a gender component that contributed to developing potentials of Island family values, and this system as an integrated family model combined with a larger family system in their region. We call this the Cheju Island Family Model or the Bat-geo-rae Model. In a community, they keep and maintain their community value and achievements in helping community works, managing common sea field property, and make a regular, seasonal donation to the common good through their Jamsuhoi association. I call this the Jamsuhoi model.

I conclude my talk on how the case of Cheju women offers an alternative to modern women's gender role options for the 21st century. One point is that they give a message of building up their gender role and its merit through balancing the power impetus between men and women, even in the comparatively male-dominated cultures of the northeastern countries, if women run their job and organizations with their original professions. The other is to show the possibility that they can set up their Diaspora beyond borders by them with their skills only.