Jeju through a Gendered Lens


The following works, in genres of fiction (short story), narrative nonfiction, academic presentation, and anthology essay, provide glimpses of the Jeju Island culture in South Korea. Once a sovereign kingdom called Tamna, this volcanic-created island’s culture remains distinct from that of the mainland – and today is often referred to as the island of strong women.

Sea Girl, a short story, is based on the centuries-old free-diving tradition of Jeju Island, South Korea, today in danger of extinction and due to receive UNESCO inscription as Intangible Cultural Heritage; it is written from the perspective of a young girl becoming a haenyeo. As such, it’s meant to introduce to its readers, in the charming young girl’s voice, basic cultural concepts and dialect terms of Jeju Island.

Goddesses, Shamans, and Diving Grannies, narrative nonfiction, reflects numerous such experiences the author had in 6 years of field research on Jeju Island, with a particular focus on shamanism and on the traditional freediving women’s community. It provides an introduction to Jeju shamanism as it relates to the diving women.

Call of the Spirits, short story excerpted from a novel-in-progress, was developed for presentation at the International Conference on Munkhtenger Studies in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (August 2006). One of its 2 main characters is a young woman from Jeju, now living in Seoul, who visits both Mongolia and Central Siberia in discovery of her shamanic roots.

‘Better to be Born a Cow than a Woman’: Kim Mandeok and Gender Equality, is extracted from an academic paper presented at the 2012 Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity in a special session, ‘The Spirit of Kim Mandeok in the 21st Century’. Kim Mandeok (1739-1812), daughter of a Jeju haenyeo, and an aristocratic mainland father temporarily exiled to the island who then abandoned her and her mother, ultimately became quite wealthy and saved the people of Jeju from starvation. Like the shamans and diving women, she is a primary icon of Jeju Island.

The trauma ‘that dared not speak its name’ was originally published in the Autumn 2011 anthology of Jeju Writers Association and integrates quotes from several articles previously published by this author in The Jeju Weekly. While not strictly women-centric, it is focused on a period of profound and complex trauma from which Jeju society is still attempting to heal, now more than 7 decades later. As the majority of casualties were male, it was to some degree the women, often doubly traumatized themselves, who were subsequently tasked with the rebuilding of community.

Shamans and free-divers, a famous merchant-philanthropist … and a wounded society. Strong women throughout. Through a gendered lens, in the voices and through the eyes of these women both fiction and true, we are afforded glimpses of this remarkable and fascinating culture.

excerpted from Introduction to Jeju through a Gendered Lens: Collected Works, author Anne Hilty, ©2023