The Feminine Mystique of Jeju Island

• Dispatch #21 •
Women seem to rule in Jeju. I love it.

Being back in Asia, one of the things that bother me frequently is how women are treated. While there is no equal society in the world just yet, living in the Western world for many years has made me realize that there are things in my home continent that are, well, not okay. And while I am glad that there are more and more people outspoken against sexism, here in Asia I think people need to speak out more, whether it’s in Seoul, Singapore, or Manila.

But here in Jeju, it seems different. What stayed with me was the realization that women are generally respected on this island—definitely way better than a lot of countries I have been to. And one of these indications is the imagery I was exposed to. In the spots that showed tradition, the images I saw show strong, powerful women. Here are some of them:

Sanbangsan

It was a short and foggy hike to Mt. Sanbang. I was there to see a temple.  You’d think that with all the temples I’d seen in Korea, I would be templed-out by now, but instead, I felt that this one was unique. As a temple in Jeju, there were local traditions injected into Buddhism, such as these beautiful statues.

This is what distinguishes a Seoul temple from a Jeju temple for me.
This is what distinguishes a Seoul temple from a Jeju temple for me.

I came across a huge statue of Buddha. I stared at it, puzzled. I realized this was unlike most of the Buddha statues I came across. Finally, my guide explained why. This was a female Buddha.

Ohmygod, a female Buddha.
Ohmygod, a female Buddha. Yeah!

Inside, there were multiple statues of this Buddha.

Ohmygod, lots of female Buddhas!
Ohmygod, lots of female Buddhas!

Seonim Bridge

Goddesses on the bridge
Goddesses on the bridge

Seonim Bridge is a bridge on Jeju over Cheonjeyeon Waterfall that has seven nymphs carved on both sides. It is also known as Seven Nymphs Bridge after the legend of seven beautiful nymphs descending from heaven at night. It was completed in 1984 and cost 400 million won to build. The seven nymphs, shown playing their own musical instruments, are built on each of the two sides of the bridge, each measuring about 20 meters in length. The bridge is 128 m (420 ft) in length, 78 m (256 ft) in height, 4 m (13 ft) in width, and 230 tons in weight.

The Korean pavilion nearby also depicted these nymphs on the beams. After often being told in Seoul that my neckline was too low, it was a relief to see these women. Look! Boobs!

Goddesses bathing
Goddesses bathing

Love Land

Perhaps one thing that may scandalize some tourists is Love Land, a sculpture park dedicated to sex. But it shouldn’t—Jeju is often touted as a honeymoon island, and what better way to think of the many ways one can consummate a marriage than having lots of positions visualized. It feels oddly modern to have a theme park dedicated to sex education.

One thing that caught my eye is this silver sculpture of a woman pleasuring herself. Girl, good for you.

One of the main sculptures of Loveland
One of the main sculptures of Loveland

Feminist Island?

I think that’s why I really like Jeju. I was not overwhelmed by images telling me to get plastic surgery (they exist in Jeju, but not on the same level as, say, Gangnam in Seoul) or to act cute or sexy for the sake of a man, but I was looking at images of women who were treated equally by their society. These images, the haenyo women divers, the goddesses in Jeju culture, and other symbols seem to reflect a distinct and unique level of feminism on this beautiful island. It was then fascinating to me to discover that the world’s most famous feminist, Gloria Steinem, has visited Jeju twice: first in 2003, then in 2011. For her, though, Jeju represents a “matrilineal” instead of a “matriarchal” culture—a balance of power between men and women.

To me, it is unsurprising that traditional Jeju respects its women and has a sustainable culture that learned how to live with nature and its sometimes harsh elements. Women are particularly vulnerable to climate change and it makes sense that people who work for equal rights for everyone also by extension work for an environment that is sustainable and balanced. Jeju has weathered through storms because it has allowed its women to flourish, shape their identities, sustain themselves, and to make an impact on their societies.

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