Welcome to the fourth issue of Sift. Shift. Lift. This month, we are travelling to Jeju Island in South Korea. A subtropical tourist hot spot often likened to Hawai’i. Home to the Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes, a world heritage site, and the culture of haenyeo.
Since we cannot board a plane, sit back and allow yourself to be transported by this video for Song from Jeju Island.
I knew nothing about Jeju Island until I attended a reading, where award-winning author Lisa See spoke about the haenyo of Jeju who inspired her novel The Island of Sea Women. Strong, resilient women who harvest molluscs, abalone, sea urchins and other delicacies for the market, plunging to a depth of 10 metres below the surface of the Korean Sea without oxygen, often into their 80s.
This issue of Sift. Shift. Lift. begins with an introduction to Jeju Island and the vanishing world of the haenyeo but, like See’s novel, it asks us to widen our perspective, to consider the legacies of the Japanese occupation, American and Soviet imperialism, and the division of Korea by allied forces after they defeated Japan near the end of World War II. A division that saw Soviet troops occupy Korea north of the 38th parallel, while the United States occupied the lands to the south.
In The Island of Sea Women, See recounts, in heart-rending detail, a pivotal moment in South Korea’s history: the Jeju uprising or 4.3 incident. A brutal campaign led by the South Korean government against the residents of Jeju, who were branded communists because they opposed the division of Korea.
From April 1948 to May 1949, it is estimated, between 14,000 and 40,000 were killed. Many more were subjected to violence, arson, famine and other atrocities. For several decades, survivors were not permitted to speak openly about the uprising nor its aftermath. The South Korean government did not apologize for its role in the atrocities until 2006, following a truth commission. The South Korean police and military did not follow suit until 2019.
Find forgotten, buried, or little-known truths in research and journalism.
The haenyeo have fascinated scientists, journalists, anthropologists and tourists for more than 100 years. Their clothing, rituals, songs and ancient breathing technique, the sumbisori, have been well studied. If you are lucky enough to travel to Jeju Island, visit the Jeju Haenyeo Museum, where you can explore all this and more. Until then, you can:
Find out how the clothing and tools of the haenyeo evolved over time in “Jeju Haenyeo Mulot and Diving Tools.”
Visit the website of author Lisa See, who shares some of the resources she relied on to research the haenyeo. Highlights include:
Learn about the sumbisori in “The Breath Sound of SeaWomen” by Mikhail Karikis. (2013)
Read “Culture of Jeju Haenyeo” to find out why the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed the haenyeo on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016.
Want to find out what it is like to dive with the haenyeo? I don’t blame you. Check out Lessons from Jeju: Freediving and Motherhood with Kimi Werner.
The Jeju uprising and Korean Civil War Period
Running low on time? This Day in History Class produced a short podcast episode about the Jeju uprising:
“Jeju Uprising Began: April 3, 1948” (April 3, 2020)
If you have an hour to spare, I highly recommend listening to episode #52 of the Korea Now podcast. Dr. Brendon Wright, Korea Foundation Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto, speaks to host Jed Lea-Henry about events that transpired between 1948 and 1960.
Listen to “Memory Politics from the Korean Civil War Period (1948 – 1960)” (August 9, 2019)
Let literature, art, films and music move you towards a deeper understanding.
An American author brought the haenyeo culture and Jeju uprising to my attention, yet the artists featured here are Korean. Artists whose lived experience, or the experience of their ancestors, permeates their works of literature, art, film, and music.
I found English translations of several classic and contemporary Korean novels and short stories about the Jeju uprising and its aftermath, including:
Sun-i Sam-chon and “Steel and Flesh” by Hyun Ki-young
Read (or watch) “Interview with Hyun Ki-young: On the Forefront of preventing state violence” in Korean Literature Now, Vol. 45, Autumn 2019 (September 3. 2019)
Dead Silence and Other Stories of the Korean Massacreby Hyun Kil-un
Read a review of Dead Silence and Other Stories of the Korean Massacreby Philip Gowman on London Korea Links (November 29, 2019)
Since the truth commission in the early 2000s, survivors of the Jeju uprising, and descendants of those who suffered during this period, have been invited to grieve more openly. Memorials have been erected and art that would have once been condemned is hung in exhibitions.
Hint: Make sure you scroll to the bottom of the page so you don’t miss the sculpture “Biseol.”
Paintings by Kang Yo-bae
Wood engravings by Park Kyong-hoon
A black-and-white film shot on Jeju Island, with local actors speaking in their local dialect, brought the 4.3 incident to the attention of global cinephiles in 2012. Jiseul won three awards at the Busan International Film Festival and the World Cinematic Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival among other honours.
Learn how guardians are preserving the 10,000+ folk songs of the haenyeo.
Read about the Songs of April, which commemorate the Jeju uprising.
Hear why South Korean violinist Won Hyung-joon believes the Korean folk song “Arirang” is the perfect song for a divided Korea and learn how he is using classical music and technology to bridge the divide between the people of North and South Korea.
Support organizations seeking justice, sustainability and harmony in Korea.
Learn about the work the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation is doing in partnership with other peace networks to foster human rights, democracy and peace in East Asia.
Donate to the Lindenbaum Organization (founded by violinist Won Hyung-joon) to help it “spread the value of peace on the Korean Peninsula through music” and “become a leader in civilian diplomacy through music.”
Find out how the Haenyeo School is working to preserve the culture and traditions of the haenyeo. Read “Bittersweet catch: Korea’s diving women and the pitfalls of cultural preservation” by Ann Meejung Kim. (June 27, 2017, updated October 12, 2019)
Want to recommend another way to be engaged? Comment below.