The Haenyeo and the Sea: Diving As Community-Led Resistance
This matriarchal Korean society overcomes crises united as a single body.
Off the coast of Jeju Island, 60 miles south of mainland Korea, a community of women divers from age 30 to 80 don wetsuits and goggles and plunge into the unpredictable waters. Braving fast-moving tides and weighed down by as much as 15 pounds (7 kilograms) of lead, these haenyeo (translated literally as “sea women”) dive as far as 66 feet (20 meters) underwater without the aid of breathing apparatuses to collect abalone, conch, and seaweed. This free-diving is extremely risky, but is made possible thanks to an ancient breathing technique called sumbisori, or “breath sound.”
Jeju’s diving women have been the backbone of the island economy for centuries (prior to the more recent tourism boom), selling their harvest to merchants on the island and across the peninsula. Jeju diver and single mother Chae Jiae said in an interview for the podcast Humans of Jeju that the haenyeo’s environmentalism isn’t just to protect the ocean as a source of income. Instead, it’s a symbiotic relationship of mutual protection. “We share what we have,” Chae says. “It’s the haenyeo and the sea.”
Eschewing the patriarchal neo-Confucian values that have defined mainland Korea’s social order since the late 13th century, Jeju haenyeo are revered as a matriarchal society that values and protects the environment. Because of the haenyeo’s dangerous and nontraditional profession (on top of being mothers, grandmothers, and heads-of-households), Western geographers have long lauded the women’s physical exceptionality, comparing them to female warrior “Amazons” and even mermaids. The haenyeo have also been subjects of scientific glorification for their unparalleled ability to hold their breath for more than two minutes and tolerate cold water temperatures.
For the haenyeo, it’s true that the body keeps the score. The divers’ skin is weathered by the sea and sun, their joints ache long after they quit diving, and their bodies are adapted to centuries of mothers and daughters diving in the sea. But haenyeo shouldn’t just be recognized as models of female empowerment because of their physical prowess, their martyrdom, or their ability to provide for their families. Rather, we can celebrate how the haenyeo have historically responded to and overcome crises through community-led resistance as a single united body.
Fighting for Autonomy
Since the late 19th century, Jeju women divers clashed with Japanese fishers who traveled to the island for better sea harvests and then overfished Jeju waters while receiving significantly higher wages than the divers. The Japanese empire annexed Korea in 1910, and during the 35-year occupation that followed, the haenyeo—as colonial subjects and laborers—faced challenges to their survival and collective well-being. As the Japanese rapidly commercialized the Korean fishing industry, the haenyeo established the first Jamsu (“Diving”) Cooperative Association in 1920 to protect themselves from Japanese control.
When the larger association was taken over by union-busting Japanese officials, the haenyeo formed local, independent chapters of these member organizations called jamsuhoe. This autonomous organization of women divers into local cooperatives was important in establishing national and anti-imperialist consciousness during the Japanese occupation.
The jamsuhoe became a unit to mobilize the haenyeo’s collective discontent when the Japanese government repeatedly exerted greater control of the fishing industry that exploited the divers. In January 1932, the haenyeo organized demonstrations against corruption in the Jamsu Cooperative Association, which had given an exclusive and illegal contract to a Japanese company that sold the haenyeo’s harvest at 40% off the market price. In response, the coalition of women divers organized hundreds of resistance meetings and demonstrations.
At one demonstration in Sehwa Village, the divers wielded jonggae homi (hoes used to collect seaweed) and bitchang (sickles used to collect abalone) and shouted, “If you respond to our demands with a sword, we will respond with death!” Police attempted to drive through the protesters, but a crowd of haenyeo surrounded and blocked the car. These protests, which organized more than 17,000 participants, successfully launched haenyeo into the public sphere as vocal political entities. Both the press and historians of the colonial period recorded the protests as an act of resistance by women laborers that was unparalleled during Korea’s entire colonial rule. It was also the largest protest by workers in the fishing industry in Korea. By successfully navigating multi-stratified structures of power and asserting their voices against exploitative conditions, these women didn’t only give birth to new models of female empowerment, but also to models of Korean independence and the sin yŏsŏng (“New Woman”) movement in a modernizing South Korea.
By the late 1940s, after Japan’s rule had ended, the Korean peninsula had become a battleground for ideological and territorial conflict between the Soviet Union, which occupied the north, and the United States, which controlled the south. Jeju residents protested the U.S. military’s occupation as well as the proposed division of the Korean peninsula. Their protests were met with a government-sanctioned massacre on April 3, 1948, in which Korean soldiers and police used a scorched-earth strategy that indiscriminately ravaged entire unarmed civilian villages. An estimated 30,000 Jeju (10% of the population at the time) were killed over the course of the four-month assault. The coastal fishing village of Bukchon, for example, became known as the “Village of Widows,” since the majority of surviving residents were women and children. To find a way to provide for themselves, Bukchon developed and still sustains a strong haenyeo culture to this day.
A Hierarchy of Care
With a spirit of shared responsibility, the jamsuhoe have managed risks, coordinated actions, and communicated to the public about issues regarding haenyeo for more than half a century. In order to maintain internal order and solidarity, these regional diving collectives are structured as democratic decision-making bodies that operate through discussion and consensus.
After diving, the women gather in a shelter around a bonfire called a bulteok with the day’s harvest to discuss personal matters and community policies. This naturally boosts camaraderie, but each haenyeo still has her own designated seat, the most central of which is reserved for the most experienced haenyeo. When haenyeo discuss issues about reefs or harvesting, it is led by those with the most wisdom on the topic.
The collective body is also stratified into hierarchies that reflect diving experience to maximize the safety of its members. One Jeju diver, Pak Sam-yang, remembers an incident in her childhood where she swam out too far and was overtaken by a wave. “It must have been even higher than a mountain because I couldn’t see the sky,” she says. Luckily, an older woman diver who was swimming behind the rest was able to spot and drag out an unconscious Pak. The haenyeo’s close-knit community is built upon this watchful, if hierarchical, care. The divers designate a specific area of the sea where the water is shallow and calm as halmang badang (“grandmother sea”), which allows older and sick divers to work and make money without placing themselves at great risk. The divers also set aside an area called hakkyo badang (or “school sea”), where the profits earned from harvest are donated to local schools. Knowledge about diving, rich harvesting locations, and sumbisori technique is still passed down through generations matrilineally. The haenyeo also have dedicated trade schools to preserve the traditional diving practices unique to Jeju Island.
Thanks to this organized structure, haenyeo have been able to cultivate deep-rooted practices of mutual aid and community reinvestment to serve each other, the island, and the larger environment.
A Legacy of Stewardship
Today, haenyeo are also the inheritors of an immediate and long-term environmental crisis, facing warmer, polluted waters and endangered marine life. The average harvest per diver has dramatically decreased over the years. Chae Jiae, whose mother is also a haenyeo, recounted how a diver used to be able to catch 331 pounds (150 kilograms) of conch a day, but now only catches 44 pounds (20 kilograms). The sardine population, too, has been removed completely from South Korean waters, both as a result of climate change affecting migration patterns and of overfishing by Japanese fishing vessels.
Still, the haenyeo organize themselves as protectors of the island and the sea. As a collective, haenyeo decide how to limit the days and hours they dive to avoid overfishing. During sea life breeding seasons, haenyeo refrain from harvesting altogether to let the finite species multiply. They even reseed the ocean’s shellfish, a process of fertilizing the ocean with iron dust to boost growth of phytoplankton, which in turn increases the supply of fish. Younger haenyeo regularly dive to extract garbage from the sea, including plastics, fishing nets, bottles, and other human litter. At the same time, the number of haenyeo, especially young haenyeo, is dwindling. Their population has dropped sharply, from 23,081 divers in 1965 (making up 21.2% of Jeju’s female population) to 2,500 active divers in 2015. More than 98% of the active haenyeo are older than 50. By the age of 80, when haenyeo qualify for retirement pensions, a haenyeo will have dedicated her life to the water and passing along her knowledge.
What looms is the threat of cultural and social extinction that parallels the precarity of their environment. Recognizing the women as environmental stewards and community leaders, UNESCO inducted Jeju haenyeo onto the Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2016. This fluid and multifaceted list recognizes both threats to and the value of generational knowledge and practices in the face of globalization and social transformation. The haenyeo’s place on the list sends a clear message to the international community of the importance of collaborating and contributing resources to safeguard the future of Jeju haenyeo.
On any given day along Jeju’s coast, one may hear the high-frequency vocal utterances of the haenyeo coming up from underwater to breathe. In addition to its translation as “breath sound,” sumbisori can also be translated to invoke a sense of “overcoming.” Haenyeo researcher Cha Hyek-young suggests the sumbisori sounds are charged with trauma and suffering, “impregnated with the potential to operate as a marker of a historical event, and a nonverbal transmitter of memory, of resistance, of rising above the circumstances.” With an aggressive inhale and rapid exhale above the sounds of the ocean, the haenyeo of today and tomorrow continue to overcome, together.