In addition to “Ulysses” (1954) another Hollywood blockbuster that shaped my expectations for Jeju Island – and particularly its famed diving women culture – was the James Bond thriller “You Only Live Twice” (1967). That film brought the adventurous Bond to live in disguise on some remote East Asian archipelago among passionate female pearl divers. With this movie fresh in mind while aloft in my Korean Air Lines turboprop en route to Jeju Island in 1973, I fantasized a bit about the Bond-like welcome I just might receive on my arrival there.
Alas! I arrived on Jeju Island to discover its diving women to be more Amazon than Siren in temperament (see “Close Encounters of the Haenyeo kind, Udo Island, Part 2).
The American diplomat, W. Franklin Sands, describes in his Undiplomatic Memories (1930) what he perceives to be the rough and misandrous disposition of Jeju womenfolk: Sands called their island “a real Amazon community” and elaborated that the women owned all the property, that children kept their mother’s family names, that few males over 13 years of age were permitted to live on the island, and that the Governor of Jeju could never bring his wife to the island so as to prevent any mainlander’s son possibly born there from laying “claim to the throne of the island kingdom.” What a storyteller!
In Greek myth Amazons were women warriors that took glee in dispatching annoying men with their swords and spears. The Amazons of yore were raised fit to fight. In contrast, and as described in the previous essay, Sirens in Greek myth welcomed sailors near shore with their song – and shipwrecked them there to be ground against the sea cliffs and devoured by octopi and anemones:
Note the timeless “Hi there, sailor!” come-on, the trusty lyre by her side – and the beastly tentacle arising from the reef in anticipation of the coming feast! For unsuspecting, careless sailors, following the Siren song was a peaceful path of enchantment leading to a wet death. You decide: Were and are the diving women of Jeju akin to Sirens, Amazons, a bit of both, or neither?
I am proof that high levels of curiosity, idealism and testosterone could take a young man far in the world in 1972, thanks to Peace Corps. I suppose the same goes today as Peace Corps is still going strong throughout the world, has unprecedented applicants, and is much more selective than ever.
Peace Corps Korea shut down abruptly in 1981. There are two prevailing theories about why that happened. One theory – the “official” version – boiled down to an axiomatic “mission accomplished” with the corollary that the dedicated Volunteers had wrapped up their assigned tasks all too well and were no longer needed. The unofficial story amounted to there being too many rogue Volunteers taking it upon themselves to “do and say more than asked, required and permitted” at the time of the 1980 Gwangju Rebellion. Peace Corps Korea, already unpopular with the military and State Department was shut down because its Volunteers were unmanageable under the political circumstances prevailing at that time. So goes the rumor.
My personal perspective in retrospect is that the chief Volunteer mission of teaching English-language to Korean students in middle school through college was incomplete by a long shot in 1981. The unexpected and rapid winding-down and departure of Peace Corps from the Republic of Korea really stunned me when it occurred.
I doubt the diving women of Jeju Island hardly noticed when Peace Corps had left Korea and Jeju Island. They were still pretty much an independent cultural force on the island all through the Peace Corps Korea era, and focused themselves and their efforts on maintaining their traditional matrilocal, parochial, seaside village social, economic and political monopolies throughout that 15-year stretch of history. When I exited Peace Corps and left the island, the diving women were still splitting their time between their underwater world, their “sisterhood on the shore,” their families, marketing their catch, and their Shamanist/Animist shrines.
Magistrate Yi Hyong-sang’s “search and destroy” mission of 1702, so impressive in the pages of the elaborate historical record of the event that I have been sharing with Jeju World Wide readers for the past four weeks seemed to have left no trace whatsoever in the public memory of Jeju women divers. Magistrate Yi’s Great Accomplishment was apparently short-lived and quickly undone after his ambitious Tour of Duty on the island. Time passing has downgraded his self-aggrandizing extravagant trip to a blip.
I don’t want to leave this topic without making brief mention of glimpses of some marvelous manly martial arts in action depicted in a few of Artisan Kim Nam-kil’s illustrated maps of the Magistrate’s tour. Here, for example, we see spectacular feats of archery and bravery on display as experienced by Magistrate Yi on the Seogwipo side of the island, and here at Cheonjeyeon Waterfall:
When I first saw this painting I could not help but think of the skills described for the celebrated Hwarang elite soldiery of the Silla Dynasty (later 6th and 7th centuries). Their talents are said to have included horsemanship, swordsmanship, archery, javelin and stone throwing, polo, tightrope walking and ladder-climbing. Zooming in at the figure of the archer, note just below him and wearing red appears to be a performer in action astride a horse at the edge of the precipice.
What I cannot figure out at this time is whether these martial arts performers are crack troops belonging to a permanently-stationed island constabulary showing off to impress and entertain the visiting Magistrate Yi, or are they elite members of Magistrate Yi’s personal military escort showing off to impress the islanders at that locality?
Next week: The Tiger Division meets ‘Traveling Sam, Peace Corps Man’ (Part 1)