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Samda: Jeju’s unique cultureWhat makes this culture special—and is it under threat?
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승인 2011.01.02  17:51:02
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▲ A scene from a shaman ritual. Photo by Brian Miller
It is often said that Jeju is culturally unique. While all cultures by definition have singular characteristics, Jeju is especially interesting in this regard.

At first glance, Jeju appears to be a mirror image of the mainland: the riotous chaos of shamanism as opposed to the hierarchical structure of Confucianism; a matrifocal culture in contradiction to Korean patriarchy; a laid-back island in contrast to the ‘ppalli ppalli’ (hurry, hurry) of dynamic Korea.

This, however, is only the surface reflection of a much deeper pond.

Often cited as evidence of Jeju’s uniqueness are its dialect, foods, customs, myths and folklore. All serve to distinguish the local culture from that of peninsular Korea, while it is also recognized that these features are swiftly disappearing in Jeju’s quest for modernization.

When an officer within the Human Resources Development Service of Korea (HRD, Jeju branch) was asked how the people of Jeju differ from those of the mainland, he replied to the contrary and with a tone of bemusement, “No, today we are mostly the same.”

Indeed, following the 1948 massacres in which nearly 10 percent of Jeju’s population was killed by national armed forces and details of which were suppressed until quite recently, Jeju experienced 40 years in which the local language and customs were actively repressed by the national government. What the Mongolians, early regents, Joseon dynasty, and Japanese colonists all attempted but failed to do – eradicate Jeju’s culture – was largely accomplished by a succession of military dictatorships in Seoul.

Scholars, government officials, and the indigenous population of Jeju recognize the need to preserve what remains of this culture. While this may be a case of “too little, too late,” it is still a worthy – indeed, critical – cause.

Jeju is famous for three abundances, or samda: wind, stone, and women. The struggle of Jeju’s people for existence despite the rocky soil and constant winds is well documented and like most societies in the face of hardship, Jeju people have become stronger, more innovative, and more tightly bonded to one another in community.

The prevalence of women in Jeju culture can be traced to the role of the haenyeo and the economic priority placed on giving birth to daughters. It can also be traced to the exile of many male citizens to Japan during the 20th century colonial period, as well as to the inordinate number of males killed during the 1948 political suppression. Added to this is the comparative biological non-viability of male over female infants, especially in harsh, impoverished conditions.

The imagery of samda can also be employed as metaphor for Jeju’s culture. We can think of stone as the bones, or core elements such as shamanic beliefs, myths, legends, folktales, traditional medicine, and other cultural underpinnings. Wind can be thought of as the breath, spirit, or ki – that which inspires a culture as found in humanistic endeavors such as art, music, and literature, as well as connectedness both to nature and community. Finally, women are metaphorically the body or flesh in that they have taken the lead and sustained the society throughout recorded history.

Several additional aspects have contributed to the uniqueness of Jeju’s traditional culture. Originally a kingdom in its own right with many indications of southern Asian influences, Jeju also has layers of Korean, Mongolian, Chinese, and Japanese cultural features. The matrifocal culture of the haenyeo communities situated within a Confucian society have historically created a need for many philosophical compromises and adjustments.

Jeju, long marginalized by peninsular Korea, has adopted a certain “outcast” or “outsider” affect. This was further emphasized by the use of Jeju as a penal colony during the Joseon era, two centuries of which Jeju’s citizens were not permitted to leave the island. This has been expressed time and again in the form of political rebellion, resistance, and other efforts toward independence.

The insularity of the island culture and its hardships has resulted in increased artistic expression and strong community bonds, the latter additionally fortified as a response to repeated political dominance and repression.

In recent decades Jeju has experienced economic development at an unprecedented rate and now holds one of the highest incomes per capita in Korea. It has moved from a sustenance-based to a tourism-focused economy and enjoyed a dramatically altered image within larger Korean society. It went from one of marginalization to that of a bucolic paradise onto which mainland Koreans project their fantasies. The island has finally, after a millennium, regained a fair measure of political autonomy. Its traditional culture, however, has suffered greatly.

The tourism economy of Jeju is predicated, at least in part, on the uniqueness of its culture. What, in turn, does the future hold for the culture of Jeju?

Dr. Hilty is a psychologist and educator, with a particular interest in the study of culture. She makes her home on Jeju Island.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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