Text by Jae-Yeon Kim, translated by Christine Lee of Y.Zin Company. Images by Y.Zin Kim and courtesy of the Jeju Self-Governing Province
THERE IS A WRITTEN RECORD from the 6th century that tells of women who would make their living by diving, naked, into the ocean to collect seaweed and shellfish with a small sickle. History calls them the “Jam-Nyeo”, meaning, “diving women” or “Hae-Nyeo” meaning “sea women”. This tradition still exists today.
LEARNING ABOUT A RICH TRADITION
The essential reason that this seemingly “primitive occupation” has persisted for more than 2,000 years is that it is centred around a unique culture. This culture has played an important role, not only in the lives of these women, but also in history.
Most people think that the Hae-Nyeo are just divers who collect seaweed and shellfish to make money, but they don’t understand the culture. I also didn’t understand it properly, even though my grandmother, my aunt and my mother were all Hae-Nyeo in their lifetime.
I decided to work as Hae-Nyeo not for the money, but because of my affection for the spirit of Hae-Nyeo culture. Yet still it wasn’t until I decided to pursue this career that I discovered the considerate behaviour and fair competition that coexist together beautifully in a system which is all their own.
GUIDED BY NATURE
The Hae-Nyeo regard the ocean as their home and as a valuable asset at the same time. Every Hae-Nyeo thinks carefully about the ocean environment and makes as much effort as possible to preserve the marine ecosystem.
To protect shellfish populations, during breeding seasons they pause in the harvest of that particular shellfish and collect seaweed instead. This wise approach follows the providence of Nature, and is made possible by a natural order and an inherited system of rules that have been passed down through the generations for thousands of years.
The Hae-Nyeo ranks are divided into high, intermediate, and lower levels, determined by their actual experiences over the years, and their skill. It is not an authoritative, imposed hierarchy but is something born of careful consideration, responsibility, and fair leadership.
The older Hae-Nyeo lead the culture of the community, discussing issues and plans together. To avoid intense competition for resources, they cooperate, and don’t harvest areas that have recently been targeted by other members. They keep appropriate distances, yet still protect each other’s safety.