The women of one coastal village on Jeju Island, South Korea are so tough, even the shamans feel a certain hesitation to perform rituals there.
I can attest to their toughness. Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri was one of the first villages I explored and probably the village, over several years, that I returned to the most. One afternoon in late spring, I found myself in a small country lane, squaring off with a woman, probably in her late sixties, who’d raised her fist higher than my head. She was threatening to smash my camera right out of my hands.
In retrospect, her trying to smash my camera would have made for great video. I tried to joke my way out of the situation, but her face remained stern. So, I made it clear I was only trying collect some information.
“What information?” she asked.
“About traditions, stuff like that,” I said.
“There’s a foreign guy who comes here to ask about that kind of thing,” she said.
“That’s me!” I assured her.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
Soon, I was being led through the village’s narrow roads, to the house of a man who knew about the particular thing I was interested in that day. I wanted to know if the shrine goddess (an actual person who died in the 1700s), who the women divers of the village worshipped, was really buried in the earthen floor of the shrine. And why was it that the men of the village said the maiden goddess was buried elsewhere, while the women maintained the opposite?
The diving women of the village were abrasive until they sussed your intentions, then they turned sweet and full of purpose. Let’s not diminish their toughness, though.
One day, I’d set up my camera on the village bille–a bille is a large expanse of basalt rock. On Jeju Island, where there isn’t coastal sand, there is a bille. Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri’s bille runs for a couple kilometers along the coast and is one of the most expansive on the island. I had my video camera positioned atop a small rise in the basalt surface which had flowed as molten rock out of some hot-hole hundreds of thousands of years ago, or a million years prior even. I have no idea when the last eruption was. I believe experts dispute that matter. I imagine that in places like Kauai and Kyushu, islands that haven’t drifted off of the ring of fire, seaside billes are still forming. You found these basalt outcrops, spaces like moonscapes, inland as well, emerging from farmer’s fields. You found them in the mid-moutain region, too, hundreds of feet above sea-level, exposed to the wind whipping down from Halla-san, the island’s central mountain. Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri’s bille, seen from above would look like a surface that had been indiscriminately beat with a hammer. Sections of the expanse were a mass of oblong rectangular chunks. When these ancient lava beds had cooled, the chunks stuck to what lay beneath them, like splintered glass from a shatter-proof mirror clinging to its acrylic sheet-backing. The whole thing was fractal, the same forms reiterated large and small. Sections of the bille are not easy to walk over. They are far too jagged. That day, I was filming long shots, trying to capture the expert way in which divers navigated the bille.
Before long, two old grannie divers discovered poachers–illegally removing sea urchins from their foraging territory. A man and his two teenage daughters, submerged to the waist in the sea water, unabashedly collected the creatures, items that belonged to the village divers’ association. Outsiders weren’t allowed to collect sea life. And, even divers from nearby villages weren’t permitted to take from other village’s beachfronts. I carried my camera upright on the tripod over to the scene, steady as I went, not to fall off into the rocks. I was determined to document the women of Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri in action, being tough and all.
After giving him a good scolding, the divers told the man to bring to them what he’d caught. They ordered him to redistribute the urchins he’d taken, back into the ocean, lest they call the police. They told him to make sure he spread them out evenly and he did so, tossing the creatures out like he’d been told. His teenage daughters, who’d been ordered to stay put, were still in the water, suffering under the waves which broke onto the jagged edge of the bille. One of the divers taunted them.
“If you are going to steal our urchins, why don’t you stay out there?”
“C’mon, let’s see you swim.”
“Go ahead, now. If you want to collect our things, then you need to be able to swim.”
“Go on! Swim out, you’ll be dead in no time. If you want to dive like us you better stay out there and learn.”
“You can’t even swim! What are you doing out there?”
“You better study hard in school, because you’ll never be a diver!”
Another day, I met with a long-retired school teacher and his diver wife, Mrs. Hyeon. There we were, seated in their living room, the seventy-five year old woman in her undershirt, gesticulating–waving an arm-cast around as she spoke. She went about her business, using the arm, whipping it about as if there were no cast at all. I don’t doubt that she had taken a fall on those bille rocks. The husband, Mr. Park, was a soft-spoken scholar who wrote a local history and performed the village Confucian rites. Mrs. Hyeon spoke to us in the coarse manner of older divers and it made her husband blush. She’d burst into the room, to his chagrin, to correct something he’d misstated in our interview.
The couple married early. Mrs. Hyeon funded her husband’s university education with money from her diving trips to Japan. That’s how he’d become a teacher in the local high school. My friend, the daughter of a woman diver from a few villages over–she’d accompanied me–thought this morsel was a hoot.
“Did your wife really put you through school?” My friend asked.
“Yeah. She put me through school.” Mr. Park blushed. Mrs. Hyeon grinned, real big, showing off a row of false teeth.
“My mom put me through school, too,” said my friend, ” with money from her Japan trips.”
One day in the village, on recycling day, when the divers all get paid 50,000 won (approx. $50 U.S.) to collect refuse along the bille, I joined the women in the town hall parking lot for a free lunch.
After lunch, while waiting for a truck to arrive, the women got chatty. I told them I wanted to talk to someone about the infamous fight that had occurred some thirty years prior between Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri and the neighboring village.
“To understand that fight,” said a woman sitting nearby, “you have to go way back.”
It was back to 1948, a year that martial law was declared and counter-guerrilla units showed up in force on Jeju Island to combat rebels who had rejected national elections imposed on the country. Following the elections, tension on Jeju turned to chaos as conflicts broke out across the island. In the end, national police forces would end up launching a campaign of all out terror, torturing and assaulting villagers, executing some 30,000 people accused of being communist sympathizers. The vast majority of these acts were committed in cold blood, with a majority of victims being unarmed civilians. Reconciliation came slowly, and finally in 2003, president Roh Moo-hyun apologized to the people of Jeju for the government’s inhumane actions. For many decades following the atrocities, mentioning details of the period, referred to commonly as the April 3rd Incident or Uprising, was risky. Speaking out meant incarceration or worse. People I have spoken with personally have told me the same. Mass graves have been discovered all over Jeju, including under the runways of the international airport. The period is still a source of great pain for people indigenous to the island.
Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri, was one village where not a single person perished.
“Back then, many people had been killed by the national government’s forces,” the woman informed me. “Many of the bodies from neighboring villages washed up on Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri’s shore. The bille was strewn with bodies. The women of our village were offered a deal. If they cleaned up the corpses, then they’d have the rights to the neighboring village’s territory.”
And clean up the bodies they did. The women of Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri, many in their twenties and thirties at the time, some much younger, scoured the jagged bille, combing over each and every surface for the remains of the neighboring village’s dead.
“That’s how Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri got the wide beach that we did. Nowadays, Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri’s territory only reaches to the stream that divides it from the village to the west, but it wasn’t always the case.”
Of course, residents whose families were involved in the macabre incident knew the story. Many directly involved were still alive in the 1980s when tension between Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri and the village to the west came to a head. The women of the village to the west- its beach was a wide swath of white sand about as large as Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri’s rocky bille- were known to be soft, soft on the scale of women divers anyway. Navigating across a treacherous moonscape of basalt one hundred days a year had hardened the women of Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri.
The women divers of the village to the west, harboring a sense of indignation, took to, over the years, breaching into their old territory. They would enter the water on their side of the new boundry, via the sandy beach, then swim into the rocks on the far side of the stream that separated the beach from Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri’s bille. Once in the rocky territory, they gathered up sea life that thrived there (women divers on Jeju call sea life items), turban shells and abalone, octopus–then swam back to their side of the boundary line. Over time, they became emboldened, simply crossing over on land.
Wounds festered and tensions built. The two villages, as far as I can tell–sometime in the early 1980s, erupted into outright physical conflict. Details are fuzzy. Everyone seems to have their own version of the story and many of the eldest residents of Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri seem to conflate several incidents. Some underplay the intensity of the conflict, while others either exaggerate or perhaps give an accurate depiction. I can’t say which. Two incidents described to me stick out. One day, I was told, the divers of Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri snuck into the workshop of the village to the west, gathered up their diving gear and dumped it all into the estuarial stream dividing the two villages. Rubber diving suits and diving caps, styrofoam floats and nylon nets were propelled by the swift current of fresh water out to sea, lost forever. Spears and hand trowels that divers used to pry shellfish from rock sunk under their own weight.
The second incident, was the infamous knife fight that occurred perhaps as a result of this first event. Where did it happen? The fishery. That much is certain. What exactly happened? According to some, a fight between scores of divers wielding knives; according to others, only two armed divers engaged, one from each village. In the second version, one diver (I never heard from which village) was cut across the wrist and subsequently hospitalized. Women I spoke with in Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri tended to give the more dramatic account, while the men played down the violence, touting the two-divers-squaring-off narrative.
At the picnic, on recycling day–the divers just in from beach combing of a much different nature than that of 1948–I asked more about the incident.
The mayor of Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri, a fit, demure man in his fifties, had this to say:
“The event at the fish farm wasn’t all that bad. One woman was cut, but it was a minor thing. She was hospitalized. It really wasn’t that serious. A few years after that incident the provincial government got tired of the conflict so they built a bridge over the stream that runs between the two villages. They joined the two villages’ territories and named the bridge ‘peace bridge’. People in both villages, we’re all fine with each other now. No one is getting red in the face about it. No one is holding a grudge.”
Now it’s 2017 and villages in the area of Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri are engaged in a new fight, this time aligned against a common foe, a foe that might very well be the end of their livelihood, but that is a story for another post.
For more on Jeju Island’s tragic past: