Thursday, June 29, 2017

Haenyeo Museum, Jeju

The English version of the travel booklet Jeju Haenyeo published November 2015 by Haenyeo Museum explains about the traditional diving women of Jeju Island, the haenyeo, or literally the "sea women". Excerpts from the booklet follow:

Haenyeo Museum

Haenyeo, also called jamnyeo, the women divers, only exist in Jeju Island and Japan. The terms refers to them as women who gather seaweed, abalone, or other shellfish from the sea. Because of the very uniqueness of this diving profession, they have been the focus of much attention from around the world.

Haenyeo are the symbol of Jeju women as they were the bulwark of Jeju's economy, going on long expeditions to Japan as well as other parts of Korea. As strong tenacious hold on life and pioneering spirit is characteristic of the haenyeo. 

It is believed that fishermen harvested abalone during the Joseon Dynasty. In a Jeju Topography written by Lee Gun in 1629, it is recorded that haenyeo harvested abalone. Records of haenyeo are also found in bibliographic data such as the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, Jiyoungrok, written by Lee Ik Tae, and Jonjaejeonseo by We Baek Gue.

Jeju's hanyeo also had a significant role in leading the anti-Japanese movement, fighting for their rights against the Japanese exploitation as one of the largest such movements nationwide.

It is our sincerest hope to build a museum on this historic site and develop a 21st century cultural arts mecca so that we can pass on and preserve Jeju's haenyeo culture, which has been acknowledged as a world heritage asset.

Jeju Haenyeo

Jeju haenyeo make their living by harvesting abalone, conch, sea cucumber, and hijiki from the ocean. The women are called jamsu, jamnyeo and jamsu [sic] in Jeju. Their lives are an integral part of the history of Jeju. The job they do in the sea is call muljil.

Diving seems to have begun before the period of the Three States, judging from the fact that Jeju had a record of contributing pearls to the king. It is believed that fishermen harvested abalone and presented them during Joseon Dynasty. Jeju Topography written by Lee Gun in 1629 recorded that haenyeo harvested abalones. The records of haenyeo are recorded on bibliographic data such as the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, Jiyoungrok written by Lee Ik Tae, and Jonjaejeonseo by We Baek Gue.

Jeju women are as diligent as men and learn early how to swim. They begin swimming at age 7-8 and were very skillful in muljil by age 18, and superior haenyeo by age 35. They are considered rare women and attract a lot of attention from around the world.

Muljil (Diving) Skill

Muljil skill is acquired by lengthy training and experience. Haenyeo near the ocean learned how to swim and dive in the shallow area by age 15. Physical conditions such as lung capacity, ability to withstand pressure, and capacity to adjust to cold water are needed. Cool nerves are also necessary when swimming near and encountering big fish. Jeju haenyeo have extended their skill and wisdom by learning the effective use of physical strength and knowledge of the ocean from the seniors at the Bulteok.


Sumbisori is the whistling sound haenyeo make when they surface. It sounds like a "hoowi hoowi" sound when they inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide created when submerged for 1-2 minutes. Sumbisori provides fresh air to haenyeo and enables them to work extended periods of time with only short rest periods.

Knowledge about Nature

Knowledge of nature encompasses knowledge of the ocean and tides, wind, harvested things and experience. Haenyeo are able to recognize sea geography, changing tidal currents, and habitats of marine life. They can estimate growing process of seasonal marine life and harvest them accordingly. For example, the best time to harvest agar-agar is different year by year. They don't harvest abalone and conches during spawning season. The haenyeo's vast experience and accumulated knowledge of the marine ecosystem have been handed down from generation to generation.

Traditional Outfits

Traditional outfits (mulot) are composed of three pieces: mulsojungi (pants), muljeoksam (jacket) and mulsugun (typing hair). Mulsojungi, which is made of cotton, is designed for minimizing the water resistance to work well under the sea. It has a side opening for haenyeo to change clothes without showing their bodies. The distribution of rubber diving suits has greatly increased haenyeo's income since being used in the early part of 1970.

Diving Equipment

Diving equipment includes swimming googles, tewak mangsari, bitchang and kakuri. The non-traditional swimming goggles have been used since the 19th century, while the other pieces of equipment were modified with modern development. 
  • the tewak can be clasped to the chest as a floating devise while swimming
  • the mangsari can be hung on the tewak for storing harvested sea products
  • the bitchang, a metal tool, is used to pick up abalones attached to rocks
  • the kakuri, considered the most useful to divers, is for picking up sea products between rocks, turn rocks over, pull their bodies by attaching the tool to a rock and pulling

Jeju designated 15 items comprising the swimming suits and diving apparatus as Folk Material, No. 10.


Bulteok is a place where hanyeo change clothes and prepare for diving or rest between dives. The bulteok surrounded with stones arranged in a circle has a bonfire in the center for warming the haenyeo, and is a place where haenyeo can exchange information and skills on diving, fishing grounds and consolidate their ideas. There used to be 3-4 bulteok in each village, depending on the size of the village. Currently only 70 bulteok exist throughout Jeju as the bulteok have been replaced by modern dressing rooms equipped with hot and cold water facilities since 1985.

Chulga Haenyeo

Haenyeo who have left Jeju for foreign countries or moved to the mainland to areas like  Gyeongsangnam-do, Jeolla-do and Chungcheong-do are called chulga haenyeo. The songs which haenyeo used to sing, pulling oars while moving to the islands or distant sea are in general called haenyeo songs. The songs expressed the emotions and cognition of the haenyeo community which still exists today and were designated as Intangible Cultural Asset No. 1 by Jeju-do in 1971.


Haesindang (shrine) situated beside the sea is a ritual place for haenyeo to pray for their safety and abundance. Jamsugut and yowanggut are dances performed for safety and abundance. Jamsugut is performed on the 8th of March (lunar calendar) in Dongkimnyongri and is a symbolic ritual and festival for the haenyeo community. The cost of the dance is shared by the haenyeo. The dance, illustrates unity of life and work while the ritual (yowangmaji) calls the Dragon King and prays for abundance and safety. Similarly, sidream is a homeopathic magical ritual to plant seeds into the sea symbolic of harvesting an abundance of abalone, conch, agar-agar and hijiki.

Contribution to and Participation in the Common Good for the Community

Jeju haenyeo helped to pave the main road and build a school by donating part of their income. All proceeds from the fixed area of "ljangbadang" [sic] went to the head of the village who worked for the village official. There used to be "school badang" which supplied school support fees for elementary school.

When the school in Onpyeong, Sungsaneup burnt down in 1950, haenyeo contributed funds raised by selling seaweed from "school badang" and rebuilt the school from 1951 - 1958. The school's supporting association erected a commemorative monument in 1961 to pay tribute to haenyeo's charitable deeds.

Legend of the Haenyeo

There used to be a haenyeo living in Mosulpo, a haenyeo who didn't suffer from smallpox. She encountered a sea turtle on dry land along the road in Geumropo. Feeling pity for it, she took it to the sea. As it swam farther and farther into the sea, it conveyed its thankfulness.

Picking up abalones in Yongduam, she ran into an old man while jewels were shining. He said, "I'm very grateful for your kindness. You have saved my son." Handing a piece of flower to her, he said, "This flower will protect you from smallpox." She later found out the flower was from the black huckleberry plant. And her whole life she never suffered from smallpox.

"Tamnajichobon" written by Lee Won Cho 1843.

Other comments/points of interest from the museum brochure:

The Jeju Haenyeo Festival (September - October sometime) is the nation's only women-centered maritime festival, which is intended to hand down haenyeo traditional culture. All women divers on Jeju participate, and in the festival are event like:
  • a haenyeo muljil (diving) competition
  • tewak swimming competition
  • tourist programs for experiencing muljil (diving) and bareutjabi (the traditional way of fishing to collect seafood using a torch)

Performance for Tourists (April - November) are arranged. Haenyeo songs which have been designed as Provincial Intangible Cultural Property No.1 are sung sturdily expressing Jeju women's spirit. These songs sung by haenyeo all over the island are in danger of disappearing due to the reduction in the numbers of haenyeo and changes in their work environment. These performances aim to increase awareness at home and abroad of cultural excellence of Jeju women divers and the cultural value of haenyeo tewak dance, haenyeo songs (such as leodosana or myeolchi hurineunsori songs sung when myeolchi are caught) and others. Jeju Haenyeo Museum hosts the Haenyeo Song Festival every year.

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