[My article, reprinted from Jeju Weekly. Photos added.]
A Look at Jeju Women’s Lives Throughout Time
The history of Jeju women’s culture
Part 1 of a 2-part series
The history of the “strong Jeju women” is significant to understanding the women’s society of today.
At the core of Jeju women’s culture is the island’s mythology, beginning with a goddess-oriented creation myth and including multiple other goddesses. The longstanding shamanic religious tradition, of particular importance to women and including many female shamans, supports this mythology.
A two-volume book series on the topic of Jeju women’s history has been published online by the Jeju Development Institute (JDI) under the guidance of its president, Yang Young-oh. Following extensive research involving multiple scholars, together the books constitute more than 1,500 pages, with volume I addressing pre-Joseon era to 1910 and volume II covering 1910 to 1945.
Moon Soon Deok, senior researcher at JDI and an expert on Jeju women’s culture, led a 23-member research team for the second volume which was published earlier this year.
Several key events throughout history have contributed to the constitution of Jeju women’s society.
For more than a hundred years around the time of the 12th century, Mongolian troops occupied this island. According to historian and mythologist Kim Soonie, Jeju representative of the Cultural Heritage Administration, this was actually favorable to Jeju women as the Mongolians viewed women in a relatively egalitarian manner. During this time, a majority of Jeju women participated in the labor force and even learned to ride horses according to Mongolian custom, for example.
Confucianism became the guiding social system of the mainland under the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), and was introduced to Jeju as well. It took hold primarily in the farming and mid-mountain villages where political exiles and other mainlanders typically settled, but was largely ignored by the coastal communities. The diving women, long devotees of the island’s shamanic traditions, rejected Confucianism’s hierarchical and male-centered ideals.
This resulted in two nearly distinct women’s cultures, according to scholar and author Han Rimhwa, in that women of the inland villages, with their newly adopted Confucian ideals, viewed the free and independent ways of the coastal women as “low-class” and “vulgar” behavior. These inner and outer regions seldom permitted intermarriage and had little to do with one another beyond trade of goods, according to Han.
For 200 years during this time, the people of Jeju were not permitted to leave the island. Scholars Moon, Kim, and Han all cite this period as particularly significant regarding the changes it brought to Jeju society, especially to its women.
A number of local women became common-law wives to the political exiles who were banished to the island. It was a source of pride, according to Kim, to bear a son who was the first to bring a new name – a new family line and registry – to Jeju.
“When the exile husbands returned to their original lives – and wives,” Kim described, “the Jeju women remained here with their families and community.” There was no stigma against them, and they were free to remarry – or not, as they chose, their children were typically supported by their absent father. A certain number of these exiles chose to remain on Jeju Island with their new families.
Several notable women emerged from this era, in particular the legendary entrepreneur and philanthropist of the 18th century, Kim Man Deok. As early as the 16th century, the renown of “medical women” Jangdeok and Gwigeum of Jeju reached the royal court. The “yeachong” were women who served in the military during the time of the Joseon dynasty.
Following this era came the period of Japanese colonization which, according to Kim, was also favorable to female workers as the Japanese included women equally in the labor force. However, according to Moon, there was “not much work for women” during this time due to various restrictions, and many women went to Japan to work in factories – and some as “hostesses” in bars and the equivalent. Many also ran “cottage industries” or home-based businesses organized by the Japanese during this time.
There are no documented “comfort women” from Jeju, those forced into sexual service to the Japanese troops, as can be identified on the mainland. However, there is speculation among many scholars, including Moon, Kim, and Han, that this was inevitably the case but that, as Jeju is a very small society, none have ever reported it in order to avoid the shame it would bring upon their families.
Notable women of this time, featured in the small museum at the Seolmundae Women’s Center, include Kang Pyung Guk, an educator and advocate for women’s rights; Choi Jeong Sook, first female superintendent of the Jeju education authority; Kim Shi Sook, leader of the independence movement on Jeju; and, Koh Su Seon, Jeju’s first female physician, among others.
The women of Jeju are notoriously strong of body and mind – and will. Often considered “natural feminists” by scholars from the mainland and elsewhere, there is no denying that Jeju is historically an egalitarian and matrifocal culture in which women have been at the center of their homes and communities, and a driving economic force.
Is strength of character woven into the Jeju woman’s DNA? Is the famed “Strong Jeju Woman” born – or made?
The era known as “Sasam” or “4.3” followed the Japanese colonial period, a time of political unrest throughout Korea which resulted in violent anti-Communist crackdowns by the military and police forces and counter-rebellions by citizens, with the ultimate demise of up to one-tenth of Jeju’s population.
According to scholar and author Han Rimhwa and many others, the women’s experience of this time represents a multi-layered tragedy.
“Men and boys were typically the target of execution,” Han reported, “and the women had to bear not only the terror and hardship of that time but the loss of their husbands and sons as well.”
She elaborated, “Women were often raped, and many offered themselves sexually in trade for their family members’ lives. One woman I interviewed told me, ‘at that time, I wanted to kill myself – but I lived, for the sake of my family.’”
Han further recounted that many women went to the mainland or to Japan as refugees during this time, following the deaths of their loved ones, in a vain attempt to escape the violence and sorrow they had experienced. “They couldn’t forget the images, though,” she said, “and some committed suicide as a result.”
Historian and mythologist Kim Soonie, Jeju representative of the Cultural Heritage Administration, reported that women often volunteered for duty in the navy during this time, in a belief that this display of nationalism would protect their family members by counteracting any accusations of “communist” or “insurgent” which were being applied, often arbitrarily, to the people of Jeju.
In this modern era, much has changed for Jeju women.
Sudden change came to the community structure of Jeju Island in the 1970s, according to Han and others, due to the central government’s “Saemaeul” or New Villages economic movement as well as the advent of television and other media.
Highways began to crisscross the island, bringing increased mobility and interaction between regions, and tourism became a major industry on Jeju during that time.
Today’s women are more highly educated and professionally oriented than their ancestors. The haenyeo and farming women’s communities have shrunk considerably, and a majority of Jeju citizens, including women, live in the capital city – or off the island.
In this modern era, when traditions are rapidly disappearing and the definition of community and women’s roles are undergoing great change, identity has become the critical issue.
“Jeju women need enlightenment in order to improve Jeju,” Kim said. “We are selling our souls for tourism and money – but there’s more than this. We need soul healing,” she expressed.
“Young Jeju women are strong, but less so than their ancestors,” Moon opined, stating that she felt upset by this.
“What does it mean to be a Jeju woman today?” Han mused. “We have a new identity now – but we don’t know what it is. We need to rebuild Jeju women’s society – and take care of each other.”