A country within a country
By Kim Ji-myung
With luck, as one of the 28 final candidates Jeju could be selected as one of the New7Wonders of Nature in November. UNESCO already designated Jeju as a Biosphere Reserve in 2002, a World Natural Heritage site in 2007 and a Global Geopark in 2010. Obviously, Jeju has exceptional and unique natural conditions.
I have not yet voted for the New7Wonders, as somehow the methodology does not seem quite valid to me. It seems more like a popularity contest, rather than an objective evaluation of the place.
I have no relative or friend living on Jeju, except an American friend doing research. I do not own any land there although I was offered lots for sale several times.
Why didn’t I buy? Because limited access to Jeju is a big barrier. On numerous occasions, bad weather has prevented me from taking a return flight back to Seoul on schedule. My multiple experiences of sitting at the airport as a standby passenger discouraged me from becoming a stakeholder of Jeju.
However, I am deeply interested in the unique spiritual and family traditions of Jeju. Jeju has long been a part of Korea, and yet it is as independent and different as a separate country. Let me elaborate just on two interesting traditions of Jeju.
Can you imagine that one week in winter is designated for moving house for the entire population of Jeju (570,000!)? It is called singugan, meaning a period between the new and old. By the solar terms, it is eight days ― five days after the Daehan (Cold Major) and three days before the Ipchun (Onset of Spring).
According to tradition, at this time all gods reconvene to heaven for a meeting and are assigned to new positions. The Jeju people believe that gods exist everywhere: in the sea, on trees, at every corner of the village, and in rooms, the kitchen and even the toilet.
Normally, when you make a mistake in handling things, the gods get angry and you are in trouble. However, during the eight days of singugan all of the gods are away attending the gathering in heaven, so people can freely mend, renovate or destroy homes. Or they can move to a new house without annoying any god.
But imagine the trouble of moving all households during these eight days of the year! Realtors, furniture and home appliance shops, plumbers and home interior workers, transportation companies ― they would all have to make their yearly livelihood in eight days! It is difficult to imagine how the financial transactions among homeowners could be finished within the limited time frame. (Koreans normally pay the entire purchase price of the house when they move; it is a significant amount of money!)
Given the changes in modern life with all the latest IT gadgets, television and the Internet, the people on Jeju must be changing as well. Whenever I visit Jeju, I try to look for clues of such changes. Last week, when I visited Jeju for a conference, I asked the taxi driver.
``Do Jeju people still move house only during the singugan?”
``Why, yes. Of course.”
``All the people? Even young couples, too?”
``Yes. Some singles coming from outside move at anytime. But it is not a ‘real’ house moving. They are moving to their ‘one-room’ studios.”
``Why is it so important to keep the date?”
``Moving house is moving the rice cooking pot. You must be careful when you move the rice cooking pot to a new place. “
Some may think this is superstition but it could reflect the many ``force majeure” situations suffered by the Jeju people. Faced with awful storms, wind and sea, the people did not want to ask for trouble.
I am sure few people these days still cook rice in the traditional iron pot fixed on the fireplace in the kitchen. Moving an electric rice cooker would probably not irritate a god no matter how it is handled. Nonetheless, the belief in singugan is still rock-hard.
A second characteristic of Jeju family life is also not well-known even to Koreans. In Jeju, a woman usually operates her own kitchen for her family. Even if a mother-in-law lives together with her son’s family, she would cook meals for herself in a separate kitchen till she dies.
Jeju women traditionally were divers. They pick shells, clams and make money. They are strong-willed. Jeju women are known for their ability to manage households as well as their own lives. This does not necessarily mean that Jeju men are weak or dependent; I heard many times that soldiers from Jeju were smart and showed leadership in the army.
Jeju is usually known for three major things – wind, rocks and women. People think Jeju has more women than men. But statistics show the number of women and men are almost equal at around 285,000. The population has been increasing recently.
My earlier mentioned American friend has lived on Jeju just one year, and yet she says she can differentiate the ``Jeju style” in traditional women’s hanbok dress. She claims it is different from the hanbok of mainland Korea.
Regardless of the result of New7Wonders of Nature election, I hope Jeju will retain its unique and attractive traditions.
The writer is the chairperson of the Korea Heritage Education Institute (K*Heritage). He can be reached at email@example.com.