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SamdaA new look at local culture by psychologist and educator Dr. Anne Hilty
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승인 2011.01.16  19:41:03
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The bones of Jeju
What is the role of tradition in modern Jeju?

▲ Photo courtesy The Photo Artists Society of Korea, Seogwipo Regional Office. Photo by Yoon Sang Chul

Tradition runs deep in Jeju.
Jeju’s unique society, stemming from its Tamna foundations and indigenous culture to its geographic isolation and troubled history, is steeped in its artifacts, rituals, and behavioral quirks. These serve to provide meaning for the people of Jeju and to strengthen community bonds.

There is a common fear among islanders and observation by foreign residents that this culture is under siege in Jeju’s full-speed quest for modernization and goal of becoming an international destination.

One of the dominant features of Jeju culture is found in its shamanic religion. Inherited from eastern Siberia with the addition of South Pacific animist features, indigenous mountain worship in the form of San-shin, and a later Mongolian overlay, its rituals and belief structure are pervasive throughout the island community.

Another prevalent cultural dimension can be found in the tradition of farming and diving women, working alongside and sometimes in place of men. The diving women in particular are found only in Jeju and southern Japan.

Jeju has a distinct pattern of myths, epics and folktales, in oral tradition both spoken and sung. Dance as well as
instrumental and dramatic performance have commonly accompanied this narrative construction.

The local dialect, debated among scholars as a potentially distinct language, is another unique feature of Jeju culture. The island’s cuisine and food-related traditions further enhance its distinct character. Artifacts such as the dolhareubang and bangsatap, and ceramics, pottery, galot dyeing, and other handcrafts all serve to further Jeju’s traditional identity.

The question of what is to become of Jeju’s culture, coupled with a consideration of its significance and whether it has a place in the 21st century, looms large.

In the interest of modernity, traditional practices are often cast aside as archaic, beliefs as superstitious. A typical pattern of societies across the globe is to discard much of the past, realize its value after the fact, and then scramble to revive or reclaim it – all too often to recreate an empty performance instead, devoid of meaning.

Moon Moo Byung, a scholar at Jeju Traditional Culture Institute, has expressed his concern that Jeju’s indigenous belief system is on the decline, though he believes it won’t disappear entirely.

Hong Sun Young, Jeju native and UK researcher at the Center for Tourism and Cultural Change [Leeds Metropolitan University], has expressed a similar view. “The authentic form ... may be on the decline but ... it has been revived through many different forms.”

What role does tradition have in modern Jeju?
Tradition and ritual anchor individuals within their community, and societies to their place in the greater world.

Identity, both personal and societal, is firmly grounded in culture.
Cultural preservation is a means to retain and expand indigenous knowledge in order to build upon that foundation as Jeju moves forward. The purpose of preservation is not to freeze Jeju in time or prevent growth and development. The use of narrative – in the arts, literature, classroom and neighborhood – is one means of securing Jeju’s cultural heritage.

Another is by the careful implementation of cultural tourism, including eco-tourism. While some have expressed concern that the Jeju government lacks such interest, there is evidence to the contrary: public shamanic rituals have become a primary tourist draw, the provincial tourism organization ( has a strong focus on Jeju's cultural features, and the government's ongoing campaigns with UNESCO and New7Wonders are entirely based upon the potential for eco-tourism.

In a 2009 OECD report, “The Impact of Culture on Tourism,” the role of cultural tourism in regional development was emphasized.

In addition to boosting Jeju’s economy, making cultural tourism a priority – and implementing it in ways respectful to the local culture itself – will provide the necessary education and financial resources for cultural preservation.

It is imperative to the health of Jeju’s community that its traditions be preserved, to retain a sense of identity and inform its evolution. In turn, cautious efforts toward cultural tourism can provide the impetus for Jeju’s cultural preservation.

The flesh and blood of the island
The 21st century Jeju woman

Women are considered one of the “three abundances” of Jeju’s culture. Historically, the island has had markedly more women than men, for several reasons. Many men died at sea due to typhoons; they were sent to Japan in large numbers during the colonial period and tens of thousands died at the time of the April 3rd Massacre.

Biologically, women tend to outlive men and female infants are more likely to survive.

Giving birth to a girl was cause for celebration based on the economic value assigned to the haenyeo, or diving woman. This didn’t place women in a position of privilege, however. The heavy manual labor and danger of the diving occupation, and the haenyeo tradition of diving while wearing minimal or no clothing, placed them in the lower stratum of Jeju society.

The haenyeo resistance against Japanese occupation is often cited as evidence of personal strength and societal power. This, however, was an economic rather than political movement; following centuries of taxation by and forced patronage to the Joseon dynasty, the haenyeo cooperatives finally resisted the sanctions of the Japanese government.

In the young generation, females are in abundance no more. According to a number of female interviewees, following the decline of diving and farming women in the past few decades a preference for male children reemerged in keeping with Neo-Confucian ideals.

It is noteworthy that samda – rock, wind, women, and, as is often said, including a fourth: drought – placed women in a category of adversity.

The stereotypical Jeju woman is strong, the early local culture matriarchal. While the haenyeo did provide the primary source of income in seaside villages, the dominant culture remained strongly patriarchal, with the exception of Udo and Marado communities.

The physical strength and fortitude of the Jeju woman emerged from hardship. Life on Jeju has been one of struggle and poverty, a battle against harsh elements. Women worked in the fields with men, or fished the sea, and sold their goods at market – all while taking care of typically large families.

Women remain disadvantaged in Jeju society, evidenced by low wages, lack of political clout, and high incidence of domestic violence, prostitution, and rape. Jeju’s rate of divorce is highest in the nation; upon filing for divorce, women often cite violence in the home.

Of note is the lack of stigma regarding divorce in Jeju culture. Until quite recently, it was still common for men to have more than one wife. Because of generalized poverty, couples typically supported the wife’s as well as the husband’s parents – the wife thus welcomed back into her natal household should her marriage end.

Women have had little voice in the governance of Jeju. Since 2006 and Jeju’s designation as a self-governing province, women have consistently held five positions in the provincial government by appointment according to local mandate. To date, no woman has been elected.

Since the 1980s, following student uprisings throughout Korea, there has been a growing awareness of the necessity for gender equality.
In 2009, a female candidate for political office in Yeondong lost by a very small margin to a well established male incumbent; it is widely thought that she will win the position handily in the next election of 2014.

Several organizations have emerged to support Jeju women.
Government-sponsored Seolmundae Women’s Center in Shin-Jeju ( is a modern complex of exhibition and concert halls, lecture rooms, and other resources. The center provides cultural and educational programs.

NGO Jeju Association for Women’s Rights ( assists women victimized by rape, other violence, and prostitution. Services include counseling, medical treatment, legal advice, and sheltering.

NGO Jeju Women’s Association ( focuses on policy change, advocating for anti-discrimination laws and supporting female candidates for political office. Other priorities include cultivation of Jeju women’s culture.

The generation gap is huge. Today’s young women are better educated, Internet-savvy, and far more aware of their position in society than their female forebears. There is bright hope for tomorrow’s Jeju woman.

▲ Photo by Douglas MacDonald

The spirit of Jeju
State of the arts, with room for growth

Jeju’s spirit can be found in the arts, nature, and community. Because of its natural beauty and exquisite island light, Jeju inspires its inhabitants to discover and explore their innate creativity.

“The nature, people and history of this land,” wrote art critic and Jeju National University philosophy professor Hyun Don Kim in 2004, “provide the womb for art and are also the object of it.”

The art community of Jeju is thriving. The island is abundant in art museums, galleries, and parks; art can also be found housed in restaurants and cafes, businesses and broadcasting stations.

Galleries include the Lee Jung Seop, Byun Shi-Ji [within Gidang Museum], Kim Young Gap, Art Space C, and four in Pinx Biotopia, among others. Jeju Museum of Art in Shin-Jeju and Jeju Museum of Contemporary Art located within Jeoji Art Village offer significant contribution.

Jeoji Village in western Jeju has been designated one of only four “cultural zones” in Korea, while Jeju Art Park is the largest of its kind in Asia.

Multiple music offerings are found in Jeju each summer. The most well-known of these are the International Wind Ensemble and Choir festivals, and the jazz festival within the Cherry Blossom celebration. Jeju Symphony Orchestra has been performing for more than a quarter-century. Both Jeju Culture and Art Center and Tapdong Seaside Art Center provide attractive venues for music.

Jeju’s contribution to the literary world is less obvious, its dramatic arts seemingly nonexistent. The Association of Writers in Jeju was active from at least 1998 to 2005; whether it still exists is unknown. Jeju’s history of oral literary tradition is rich, however, and performance abounds in the form of shamanic public ceremonies.

Notably, Jeju National University offers degrees in fine arts and music, but not in creative writing or dramatic arts.

The art world has been invited to Jeju. The 3rd annual Delphic Games, the world’s largest international art festival, was held in Jeju in September of 2009. That same year, six young mainland artists participated in a one-year residency program sponsored by the Seogwipo government.

While the island inspires art, creative risk-taking is less apparent. Landscape painting or photography in classicist and realist styles is prevalent, according to gallery owner Ahn HyeKyoung.

“Jeju artists imitate the styles of others,” laments world-renowned painter Byun Shi-Ji, “rather than finding their own way. It is a confused stage with no personality.”
Byun adds that artists should be leading Jeju. “Society is fiercely competitive,” he observes, “for fame, power, comfort; it is the purpose for living. But in art there is no competition, no power. It is the antidote [to modern society's ills]; we become more human through art.”

Some of Jeju’s artists have politicized their work, according to Ahn, using it to increase public awareness of the April 3rd [1948] massacre in order to encourage healing in a society long traumatized. A small group of artists has formed a collective toward this end, the beginning of the cohesiveness for which Byun expresses longing.
“First,” Byun advises, “the artists must establish and define their own society.”

Both Byun and Ahn rue the lack of government support for Jeju arts. There is hope, however; the Jeju Culture and Art Foundation, in February of last year, allocated 410 million won for 100 art creation or promotion projects, and another 226 million won for a total of 54 exhibitions, performances, folk cultural events, and literary activities. A majority of the latter is meant for projects “to reinforce the cultural identity of Jeju.”

“The boundless nature [of Jeju] recalls the infinity and transcendence hard to catch with our limited sensory intuition,” art critic Hyun concluded, “and makes us tremble with awe.”

(Interpretation by Hyun Hee Weon)
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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