It may be hard to believe in a place that once was, and in many ways still is, the most Confucian country on earth, but for a time areas of Jeju had matriarchal social systems. This role reversal is said to have begun in the nineteenth century as a form of tax evasion, when male divers found a loophole in the law that exempted them from tax if their wives did the work. So were born the haenyeo (해녀), literally “sea women”; while their husbands cared for the kids and did the shopping, the females often became the breadwinners, diving without breathing apparatus for minutes at a time in search of shellfish and sea urchins. With women traditionally seen as inferior, this curious emancipation offended the country’s leaders, who sent delegates from Seoul in an attempt to ban the practice. It didn’t help matters that the haenyeo performed their duties clad only in loose white cotton, and it was made illegal for men to lay eyes on them as they worked.

Today, the haenyeo are one of Jeju’s most famous sights. Folk songs have been written about them, their statues dot the shores, and one can buy postcards, mugs and plates decorated with dripping sea sirens rising from the sea. This romantic vision, however, is not entirely current; the old costumes have now given way to black wetsuits, and the haenyeo have grown older: even tougher than your average ajumma, many have continued to dive into their 70s. Modern life is depleting their numbers – there are easier ways to make money now, and few families are willing to encourage their daughters into what is still a dangerous profession. The figures peaked in the 1950s at around thirty thousand, but at the last count there were just a few hundred practising divers, the majority aged over 50. Before long, the tradition may well become one of Jeju’s hard-to-believe myths.

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