The Matriarchal Family Structure on Jeju Island (part 1)

I took the course “Korean culture” this semester, and we had to write a short paper about a Korean subject that interested us. Because I travelled to Jeju two years ago, I decided to write about Jeju’s “mermaids”: the haenyŏ (part 1). I compared the social standing of these women with the position of women on the Korean mainland (part 2 coming up later). I used Korean proverbs and sayings to illustrate traditional society.


jeju2The Island of Jeju is situated in the Korea Strait, southwest of mainland Korea. Its economy has traditionally been dominated by the fishing industry, until recently when tourism began to play an important role. Because of the isolated location, the influence from outside and the occupation by Japan, language and culture evolved in their own way. One of the most striking differences is the existence of a matriarchal family structure in the past.

Jeju’s male population consisted mainly of fishermen, who went out to sea for long periods. What the proverb in the title endorses, is that women were very visible on Jeju, compared with the situation of women on the mainland. Because of the absence of men, women had to take up not only household chores, but also work in the fields. They were the head of the family.

1.1 Jeju’s “sea women”

jejuhaenyopurseA specific job only performed by women for at least a thousand years, was diving. These women, haenyŏ, literally meaning “sea women”, gathered abalone, conch, sea squirt, agar, marine algae, sargassum and shellfish. The haenyŏ symbolizes Jeju Island’s matriarchal family structure or is seen as “a spirit of women”. In the beginning, men also participated as divers. Due to various reasons, diving became an exclusively female profession. It is said that women are preferred above men for this job, because the latter are too skinny. Women have more body fat and adapt easier to the cold temperature of the sea. In the past, women were more profitable to evade the heavy taxes. Another, earlier mentioned reason, is that men went out fishing in deep sea and could not return home every day to sell sea shells on the local market, like the haenyŏ did. Their traditional swimwear consisted of a swimsuit of cloth and goggles. They kept the catch in a fish net, while a buoy (tewak) attached to it located their position in the water. Their only tool was a hook or knife to detach the sea products. No scuba gear was used, for haenyŏ had developed their own breathing technique, characterized by the whistling sound (sumbisori) that could be heard when they broke through the water surface. Haenyŏ could keep their breath for almost two minutes, and dive twenty meters deep. Because of the cold on these depths, diving during the winter was limited.

Nowadays, there are 480 haenyŏ registrated, of which around 400 are active. Most of them are older than fifty. Traditionally, the profession of diver was passed on to the next female generation, but the daughters of current haenyŏ prefer jobs in less harsh working conditions. However, every year new haenyŏ take part in the diving program of the Hansupul Haenyŏ School. Becoming familiar with the currents, winds and tides is essential to face the dangers of diving. Although traditional swim wear is traded for rubber swimsuits, scuba gear, flippers and Styrofoam buoys, diving is still physically demanding. In spite of the high average age of haenyŏ, working times are still four to five hours a day for seven to fifteen days a month, and lead weights around their waist take them down for ten meters. Modern haenyŏ earn approximately 55,000 to 110,000 won per day.

1.2 Women as breadwinners

Women would take up the job of haenyŏ if they had difficulties in making a living. The money they earned by selling the sea products on the market, made up for the greatest part of the family budget. Regarded as the breadwinners, Jeju women are said to enjoy a higher social standing. That in contrast with the Confucian society, in which female economic participation was barely allowed. In the island villages, men cited Confucian homilies and gave extravagant ancestor worship ceremonies to support their sex’s superiority as a compensation for their secondary status. During the early twentieth century, haenyŏ were the first women workers who migrated to the seaside of Japan, China and Russia. Although they operated as a team of exclusively women, their individual income was still higher than that of skilled male factory workers.

However, Gwon Gwi Sook argues that the economic transformation into capitalism heavily influenced the work and status of the haenyŏ. Changes in haenyŏ labor processes can be found in the colonial period (1910-1945), the transitional period (1945-1960) and the industrial period (late 1960-present).

In the late Chosŏn dynasty, diving became designated as women’s work, as laws following Confucian norms prohibited men from diving. Although seen as performing the lowest job, haenyŏ provided the main part of tribute. At that time, Jeju had a subsistence economy and was burdened with a tributary mode of production, until the government established reformations in 1814. That their contribution to the welfare on Jeju was acknowledged proves the fact that husbands of haenyŏ were prohibited from participating in the educational circle (hyangkyo). Therefore, notwithstanding the strict social regulation by Confucian norms, Jeju women enjoyed some sort of higher status.

During colonization by Japan, Jeju was subject to the most drastic social changes because of its geographical position. The economy depended on Japanese demand, and 50,000 out of 200,000 young Jeju men immigrated to work as wage laborers in Japan’s flourishing industry. The result was that women were left alone to manage the shortage of domestic labor and the increase of their responsibilities. They became simple commodity producers and wage laborers by selling their sea products on the market. Delicacies like brown alga and abalone were sold at high prices in Jeju, but could be sold for even more elsewhere. Therefore, haenyŏ became the first seasonal migrant laborers of Korea. Japanese and mainland Korean merchants tended to hire rather Jeju haenyŏ as wage laborers than divers of their own region because of their skills and low wages. The haenyŏ earned more than their husbands in Japan. In 1934, more than 10% of Jeju’s female population, performed as a haenyŏ. It is clear that women played an important role in the economic development of Jeju.

Socially and politically, however, their status was determined by Confucian norms. Affected by patriarchal structure and ideology, their economical contributions didn’t alter the marginal position of women. Although the wife brought in the money, the way in which it was spent was still decided by her husband. Daughters had little access to education, other than in the traditionally economical sector. There was no discrimination, but haenyŏ were seen as inferior marriage partners.

Pictures from the Korean movie "My mother, the mermaid".

Pictures from the Korean movie “My mother, the mermaid”.

For women who engaged in wage labor abroad, working under male employers also spurred unfair gender relations. As the lowest in the hierarchy, haenyŏ often suffered from humiliating work and living conditions. They were forced to stay because of so-called debts and often sexually exploited and abused. Their wages were reduced to the minimum, barely enough to cover daily expenses. However, all the money was needed as a supplement to commodity production to maintain their family on Jeju. Despite their responsibilities, no improvement of status could be noticed. In 1932, haenyŏ openly accused their Japanese superiors of sale domination. Their demand was partly granted, but unfair market relations remained.

The economic situation worsened after the Korean War. Due to the Jeju uprisings (1948-1954) , the damage was enormous. Women had to shoulder yet more responsibilities, but their position did not improve. They were not strong enough for farming, and their work became devalued. It was still seen as a substitution business. The patriarchal family system proved to be dominant over improving labor relations.

Further development of capitalism did not fill the gaps between sexes. Men’s work was valued highly, while working women’s status remained low. The number of new haenyŏ dropped, as the haenyŏ herself encouraged her daughter to take up a less harsh and more prestigious job than what she had done all those years.

picture by Idobi

picture by Idobi via Wikimedia Commons

Today, haenyŏ have never been so protected by law and other institutions. They participate in trade union and decision-making processes. They were, however, till not so long ago excluded from inheritance, property and ancestor worship ceremonies. As a conclusion, haenyŏ’s status did not really improve since the beginning. Nowadays, they are seen as a symbol and represent a feminine culture, specific to Jeju Island. The representation of haenyŏ as strong, powerful women positively effected their status. This contrasts with the image of the Korean woman, dominated by a male-dominated Confucian society.

If you found this interesting, please look forward to part 2


4 thoughts on “The Matriarchal Family Structure on Jeju Island (part 1)

  1. Pingback: 해녀 (Haenyo), as mulheres do mar | Coisas da Coreia

  2. Pingback: 해녀 (Haenyo), as mulheres do marCoisas da Coreia | Coisas da Coreia

  3. Aw this saddens me. I heard about the matriarchal culture on Jeju Island and was excited that a country had one, especially an Asian one, but it looks like the women were still not held in higher regard than men after all…. That’s disappointing. Thank you for this highly informative post!

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