About once a month I write a blog suggesting interesting, inspiring or fun short films to watch but this month I’m focusing on just one set of women swimmers. Karen has been reading the novel ’The Island of Sea Women’ by the aptly named Lisa See based on the real lives of the Haenyeo women from the island of Jeju in the North Pacific off South Korea.
Haenyeo have a long history of a very specific swimming practice and have developed into a niche matriarchal society, financially supporting their families through daily diving. There’s a wonderful summary here from artist Mikhail Karikis who has studied the Haenyeo for their vocal talents, but as you will read, discusses the whole practice of their sea diving:
”Operating outside the currents of modernization, the haenyeo (literally meaning sea-women) are an ancient and fast-vanishing community that now consists predominantly of sixty to ninety-year-old women who dive to depths of up to twenty meters with no oxygen supply to catch sea-food, collect seaweed and find pearls. This is a gendered profession practiced only by females. There are several reasons for this. A physiological explanation is the distribution of fat in women’s bodies, which insulates them against the cold and allows them to stay in the sea for as long as eight hours even during the coldest winter months. A socio-political factor is the sexism in Confucian law, which, until the beginning of last century did not recognise female labor, excluding the heanyeo from taxation. Thus, the diving women engaged in a low-status profession and worked against the will of the state, but brought their entire income back home.
A haenyeo may dive up to eighty times a day. Each dive lasts up to two minutes and is punctuated by a combination of sounds, including a high-pitched breathy shriek or whistle; an arguably spontaneous vocal firework bursting out of the mouth, which one might mistake for a dolphin or a bird call. At once alarming and joyous, this sound is as thin as a blade marking the horizon between life and death. The diving women make a living by constantly negotiating the limits of that which sustains them, their breath. But they come prepared. They are equipped with the sumbisori: an ancient breathing technique, which has been practiced for centuries. It is taught by one generation to the next, when new girls start diving with their mums or grandmothers at the age of eight.
The little research that exists on the physiology of the sumbisori reveals that the technique entails exhaling very rapidly all the carbon dioxide accumulated in the body, and quickly inhaling fresh oxygen. The lungs of the haenyeo shrink from the pressure in the depths, and, hungry for air when the diver resurfaces, they expand, causing a violent inhalation and a high pitched wheezy whistling gasp. These sounds, occupy high frequencies above the noise of the sea, and are easily identifiable. The haenyeo have limited vision above water resulting from their underwater masks or because of high waves. Therefore, when at work in the sea the sounds of the haenyeo could be said to function as aural signals and acoustic location markers. Also, to the trained ear, each sumbisori has a distinctive sound; it is an individual acoustic signature that is produced in the different mouths and bodies of each woman. The sumbisori with its aural production is a work skill – a specific craft which a young hanyeo begins to learn as a young girl and takes years to perfect. Practiced only by women and passed on from mother to daughter, this is a gender-specific skill that is trans-generationally transmitted, creating an inter-generational aural bond that ties the community and functions as a sonic signifier of professional identity.”
If that’s caught your imagine, here’s a short film you might like too.
The Orange Hat Ladies might not be at this level of breath holding, but we most certainly able to recognise how amazing the Haenyeo are – extraordinary women, doing extraordinary things. Happy International Women’s Day for Tuesday 8th March!