Asia Life

Mermaids of Asia: Dugongs, Dragon Wives and the Deep

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Asia Life

Mermaids of Asia: Dugongs, Dragon Wives and the Deep

Although the mermaid mythos is normally thought to be Western, it runs deep in Asia too.

When most think of mermaids, Disney’s Ariel or some Hollywood version of the mythical creature – almost universally female – comes to mind. Tom Hanks’ 1984 film Splash, starring a fishtailed Daryl Hannah, is a prime example. But historically, even eminent explorers from Christopher Columbus to Henry Hudson and John Smith reportedly encountered sea nymphs.

The traditional explanation for this phenomenon asserts that sailors have foolishly mistook Atlantic-bound manatees or their Indo-Pacific cousins the dugongs – collectively referred to as “sea cows” – for the beautiful mythological creatures. But is it really likely that lonely sailors at sea were so starved for romantic companionship that anything even remotely resembling a woman would cause them to be duped – even a member of the mammalian order of Sirenia (derived from the sirens of Greek lore)? How drunk and lonely would a ship-bound Romeo need to be to be mistake a sea cow for a sea nymph?

Beyond the sheer incredulity of this theory, there is something much more problematic with this popularly believed explanation. “Mermaids are sort of beyond gender, I think, given that they are half woman and half fish, often represented with no genitals, in a hybrid state,” Carolyn Turgeon, author of five novels including Mermaid, tells The Diplomat. “Given our present moment, when gender is more fluid than it's ever been, I think that mermaids have a particular resonance.”

Turgeon continues, “At base, the mermaid is a hybrid, neither one thing or another but everything at once. I think that mermaids are having a big moment right now, and that there's something interesting going on in terms of femininity and gender.” Turgeon muses in depth on this topic in her essay, Neither Fish Nor Flesh.

The mermaid mythos – androgynous, universal – has been referenced from ancient Syria to classical Greece; Ireland to Babylon; in Africa and India, home of the mythical half-human, half-serpentine nagas. “There is something universal about this myth, something about this specific archetype that helps us relate to the ocean and all the mystery and inaccessibility it is and represents,” Turgeon adds. “Once you start looking, it’s sort of astounding how ubiquitous they are, in film and art and pop culture generally, and all over the world, and for hundreds of years.”

The recent surge in popularity of the mermaid mythos has been readily exhibited by pop music icons Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, as well as Animal Planet’s smash hit “mockumentary” Mermaids, which had higher ratings than any program in the television network’s history. And while the mermaid mythos was historically stronger in Europe, it turns out another interesting – and more socially subversive – interpretation of this myth has been put forward which has roots in Asia.

William Bond, co-author of The Origins of the Mermaid Myth, points out, a Dutch seaman called Hamel aboard the Sperwer was shipwrecked near the Korean island of Cheju in 1653. He and the survivors of the wreck spent 10 months on the island, where they observed something that broke taboos at the time in both Korea and certainly in their native Holland. Upon returning to Holland, Hamel penned a tome telling of his experiences and claiming that mermaids lived on the island. As Bond notes, women on the island today still dive for shellfish and edible seaweed.

A similar practice was also present in Japan where reports of women free divers stretch back 1500 years. In the 1960s, Western journalists began to photograph topless women divers capable of diving as deep as 30 meters and spending up to three minutes submerged in waters as cold as 50 degrees Fahrenheit. In China and Japan, these women were referred to as “Dragon Wives,” indicating their perceived strength and stature in these patriarchal societies.

Despite their treatment in 20th century media, these women were not mere pin-up girls. Their existence has traditionally been contentious – even taboo – in Korea’s male-dominated society, yet female divers continue to aquatically put men to shame in parts of Asia today. Bond notes that this is attributed to a higher percentage of subcutaneous fat, which protects them from the cold water. (I have seen for myself the female pearl divers at work with little more than flippers, goggles and a snorkel in the waters near the Japanese town of Toba, Mie Prefecture, which is renowned for its pearl deposits.)

In light of these facts, Bond asks, “Does this mean that what we refer to as mermaids are simply women divers?”

Although Turgeon notes that mermaids are not necessarily one gender over another, the archetype they represent appeals most strongly to women. She explains, “I think that many women are attracted to the wild power of the mermaid, the fact that she is so beautiful and alluring but also free, wild, untied to regular everyday life and not beholden to anyone (or any man).”

“I think it’s pretty clear that even a super whitewashed mermaid like Ariel taps into some kind of dark unconscious longing in us,” she continues. “She's dangerous and powerful and I think that many women long to tap into that kind of essential feminine magic and power that is so hard to celebrate in the real world.”

“I have interviewed and met many, many women who identify as mermaids, who slip on tails and swim in the open ocean or their local lake, and they almost all speak of the empowerment they feel, slipping into that tale. I think it's the power of stepping into an archetype, something essential and magical.”

Tomorrow, we speak to one such real-life mermaid who hails appropriately from none other than the home of the Merlion, Singapore.