Rocks, Wind and Women
By “Awake!” correspondent in Korea
“WE HAVE many beautiful and interesting things on our island,” said the Cheju islander confidently. A quick look around seemed to confirm what we were told.
On this island, located just ninety-three miles south-southwest of the southernmost tip of the Korean peninsula, doors are seldom locked, and if a family leaves home for a while a stick is placed across the front gateposts, not to keep others out, but to show friends from a distance that no one is at home. Women often work secularly, leaving the men home to care for the children and to keep house. Tangerines flourish along with semitropical plants on the southern seashore, yet just 12 miles away, atop 6,597-foot-high Mount Halla, Arctic plants can be found.
Yes, Cheju Island has many interesting features, but, as the islander to whom we were speaking added, “there are three things we have in great abundance—rocks, wind and women.”
The island appears to be one big rock covered by many smaller ones of varying sizes. Most of these rocks were formed when Mount Halla, in the very center of the island, was an active volcano and spewed boulders to all corners of the island. Just to the west of Mount Halla is an unusual rock valley with over 500 points of rock jutting straight up.
The second abundance, wind, is very much in evidence day and night. It blows hard and steady. “But,” explained a rosy-cheeked young woman, “we do not have the destructive typhoons that plague other islands in this area.” Also, our Korean host was quick to point out that Cheju women do not wear makeup. The rosy cheeks are “really real,” he emphasized, “caused by natural good health and the brisk wind.”
Cheju Island does have another abundance too—a disproportionately large number of women inhabitants. This is especially so in the middle-aged group. Why?
As far back as 500 years ago Cheju Island was used as an island of exile for unwanted dissidents and intellectuals from the Korean mainland. These men were scholars who had never worked with their hands, and as nobles they refused to do any menial tasks. Thus slave girls were sent along with them, and since that early time the women have worked secularly while the men stayed at home and cared for the children. Since the Cheju women are always out working, they are more easily seen and appear to be many more in number than they really are. Furthermore, hundreds of Cheju men were massacred on April 3, 1948. Many of them had taken sides with Communist North Korea after Korea was divided into two separate nations by the American and Russian forces on August 15, 1945. The Communist-led Cheju men later fought with the South Korean National Police and many lost their lives, reducing the island’s male population.
World-Famous Women Divers
Cheju Island is famous for its women divers or “sea women,” as they are called locally. These women support their families by diving to the ocean floor for various salable items. These include abalone shells, sponges, scallops, sea slugs and seaweed. At times they even bring back squid and small octopuses. The diving girls begin their training at about fifteen years of age and work their way up to senior diver in about ten years. Although they descend to depths of up to forty feet, they use only a small pair of goggles—no other artificial help.
These women stay underwater for up to three minutes of strenuous activity and have the amazing ability to continue working even in the coldest weather. It is not unusual to see winter tourists who visit the exposed northern tip of Cheju Island taking pictures of the diving girls as a light snow falls.
The Old and the New
If someone visits Cheju between the dates of January 21 and February 4, he will immediately get the impression that everyone is moving to another house or repairing the one he is in, all at the same time! And the assumption would be partially correct! These hardy islanders believe in various “gods” and spirits and they are always careful not to displease any of them. They believe that these gods rest between January 21 and February 4, thus the people are free to move, repair and add on at that time without offending a “resident god.” This custom is fast vanishing in the cities, but it is still kept in most villages.
What about the language? The Cheju people speak Korean, but it includes many words and phrases that are definitely not modern Korean. What are they? The language spoken by Korea’s royalty over 500 years ago. These men came here while Korea was still using the twenty-eight-letter alphabet. Now a twenty-four-letter alphabet is used on the mainland and, as a result, four distinct sounds were lost. However, they remain intact on Cheju! This gives the islanders’ speech a sound characteristic that is unique, it being richer than the mainland Korean.
A stroll through a typical Cheju village such as Sogwipo on the south coast of Cheju gives us much insight into the way of life here. As we stand in the center of Sogwipo facing west, we see clean, wide streets with a few cars and many women vendors. Lining the street are neat and clean cafés, each having a capacity of about ten guests. The food is spicy and delicious. Cheju islanders feel that if you eat your food and it does not bring tears to your eyes, it did not have enough red pepper in it.
As we walk farther along, we pass by a well and are reminded that water-carrying is a woman’s job on Cheju, as most other hard work here is. Women congregate at wells and fill their large earthenware vessels with water, strap the vessel on in a back sling and then carry it home.
As we observe the houses we find that they have an interesting peculiarity. The walls and foundation are made of stone, and the roof is made of thatched rice straw. Since the wind blows hard, it would easily blow away the thatched roof, so a net of ropes is made that covers the entire roof and house just like a large fishnet. This net is tied to the ground all around or else has large rocks weighting it down and dangling on all sides of the house. This neat fishnet appearance gives the island a look all its own and attests to the strong Cheju wind.
As twentieth-century influence gradually reaches Cheju Island, especially in the form of many foreign tourists, there are many observable changes being made in the landscape and in the customs of the people. Where there were once only thatched-roof huts, now there are modern low-built houses in the capital, Cheju City. Each year thousands of foreign visitors spend time here, enjoying the slow, relaxed atmosphere and the friendliness of the Cheju people. But this is not the only change that is being made.
Changing Life Patterns
There is also a very noticeable change in the lives of many of Cheju’s people as they learn about the Bible and its hope for the future. For instance, our Korean host introduced us to a very dignified and kind man about fifty-five years of age. He was well dressed and had the mark of a gentleman in all he did. “However,” said our host, “he was not always such a gentleman. At one time he was a heavy drinker and the laziest man in all of Cheju Island!” “That is true,” added another islander. “He used to come to my café and drink rice wine until he could not even walk. Many nights he would sleep out on the sidewalk in front of my café, just where he fell as he was helped out the door.” This man had his wife working to support him and his drinking habit and he would carouse and recuperate in a continuous cycle. However, he came in contact with Jehovah’s witnesses through the Watchtower and Awake! magazines, and from that started a study of the Bible. He has made immense changes in his life. He has brought his life into harmony with Bible principles and takes the lead in caring for the spiritual interests of his family as well as their material needs. He also spends 150 hours per month teaching others about the wonderful hope for the future that God’s Word the Bible offers.
With some urging, our host also told how he came to become one of Jehovah’s witnesses. Shuffling his feet and grinning shyly as he thought back, he began: “I learned about the Bible because I was a typical Cheju man.” “What do you mean?” we asked. “Well, my wife was the one who supported our family. She worked all day long while I stayed home and cared for the kids. One day, since I was always at home, Jehovah’s witnesses came offering to teach the Bible to me and my family and, having really nothing to do, I accepted. Then I began to realize that what the Witnesses were teaching me was logical and true, and it was directly from the Bible. I studied in earnest then and progressed to the point where I knew I should be caring for my wife rather than having her support me. Gradually, with the help of Bible truths, I changed my way of life. Now my wife cares for the children while I make a living as a citrus grower and also, as one of Jehovah’s witnesses, I now teach others from the Bible about God and his purpose for this earth to be a beautiful paradise.”
We spent only a week here on this beautiful island, yet when it was time to go, we found that these kind, honest and frank Cheju islanders had touched our hearts and made an impression upon us that we will not soon forget. Rocks, wind and women are in great abundance, but so are honest-hearted people who are trying to please God.