The Li are an ethnic group that lives mostly at the base of Wuzhi Mountain on Hainan Island. A They are the largest minority on Hainan island and were the inhabitants of Hainan Island before the Han Chinese arrived. There is archeological evidence that the Li have been on the island since around 1000 B.C. The Li are animist and ancestor worshippers. They observe a 12-day week, with each day named after an animal. Their biggest celebration is the Festival of the Third Day of the Third Lunar Month. Their dead are buried in single log coffins in the village cemetery. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, 1994)]

Li is a generic name for the indigenous people of Hainan island. Also known as the Lai, they live mainly in Hainan Province, in the western part of the island. Hainan Island is located south of the Chinese mainland, off the coast of Guangdong Province. About 60 percent of Li live inside their autonomous areas, and the rest mostly in the nearby districts. Most live in and around Tongze, capital of the Hainan Li-Miao Autonomous Prefecture, and Baoting, Ledong, Dongfang and other counties under its jurisdiction; others live among people of the Han and Hui ethnic groups in other parts of the island. The Li live in the city of Dongfang, the four Li autonomous counties, Baisha, Lingshui, Changjiang, Ledong, and two Li and Miao autonomous counties, Qiongzhong and Baoting in southern and central Hainan Province. The remaining population lives scattered in other regions of Hainan. The Li are especially concentrated in Ledong, Ya, Lingshui, Baoting, Qiongzhong, Baisha, Dongfang and Changjiang counties. Baisha, Baoting and Ledong counties are regarded as the heart of Li country. [Source: Ethnic China *]

Li Autonomous Prefecture is located in a mountainous area with abundant forests and tropical climate on Hainan island. Lying at the foot of the Wuzhi Mountains, the Li area is blessed with fertile land and abundant rainfall. Coconut palms and rubber trees line the beaches and people in some places reap three crops of rice a year and grow maize and sweet potatoes all the year round. The area is the country's major producer of tropical crops such as coconut, arica, sisal hemp, lemon grass, cocoa, coffee, rubber, oil palm, cashew, pineapple, casava, mango and banana.The island is abundant in minerals like copper, tin, crystal quarts, phosphorus, iron and tungsten. There are numerous salt pans and many fine harbors along the coast, and good fishing grounds off the shore. Pearls, coral and hawksbill, turtles of commercial value are found in the coastal waters. Black gibbons, civets and peacocks live in the primeval forests which abound with valuable timber trees. [Source: |]

The "Li" name is Chinese in origin. There are five main Li groups, each of which could be considered a separate ethnic group: 1) The Gai 58 percent of the Li); 2) the Ji (24 percent); 3) the Bendi (6 percent); 4) Meifeu (4 percent); and 5) Jiamao (7 percent). These groups speak different dialects (or languages), sometimes unintelligible to each other; they dress in a different clothes and have many different customs. Also living in Hainan Island is an ethnic group called Danzhou whose origin is not completely understood but has likely been forged through centuries of slow interaction between Hainan aboriginals and Chinese immigrants. This group has asked the Chinese Government to recognize them as a national minority, but without success. *\

The Li are the 17th largest ethnic group and the 16th largest minority out of 55 in China. They numbered 1,602,104 in 2020 and made up 0.11 percent of the total population of China in 2020 according to the 2020 Chinese census. Li populations in China in the past: 0.1098 percent of the total population; 1,463,064 in 2010 according to the 2010 Chinese census; 1,248,022 in 2000 according to the 2000 Chinese census; 1,110,900 in 1990 according to the 1990 Chinese census.A total of 360,950 were counted in 1953; 438,813 were counted in 1964; and 882,030 (0.09 percent of China’s population) were, in 1982. [Sources: People’s Republic of China censuses, Wikipedia]

Origin of the Li

Hainan Island, where most Li live
The Li are descendants of the ancient Baiyue people who are believed to have migrated to Hainan Island from Guangdong and Guanxi provinces 3,000 year ago. The earliest evidence of Han habitation is from 200 B.C. Residing primarily in the dense tropical forest on the Limulingshan mountain, the Li have fought many times with the Han Chinese but united with them to fight the Japanese in World War II. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, 1994)]

The Li are associated with the Wuzhi mountainous area. Archaeological research has uncovered more than 100 Neolithic sites. Perhaps the ancestors of Li people occupied these. Some historians say the Li people developed from the ancient Yue people and their origin is closely related with the Luo Yue ethnic group, a branch of "a-hundred Yue nationalities." The Luoyues (Luo Yue ethnic group) migrated from Guangdong and Guangxi on the mainland to Hainan Island long before the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.). Archaeological finds on the island show that Li ancestors settled there some 3,000 years ago during the late Shang Dynasty or early Zhou Dynasty. [Source: |]

Ethnically, the Lis are closely related to the Zhuang, Bouyei, Shui, Dong and Dai ethnic groups, and their languages bear resemblance in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. In ancient times and historical records the Li were known by various names, including the Qi, Run, Meifu, and Sai. These names are linked with the different Li groups. According to historical records, the term "Li" first appeared in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Since the Song Dynasty, the name of "Li" has been widely used to describe the people of Hainan island. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science Museums of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences ~]

Samuel R. Clarke wrote in “Among the Tribes of South-west China” published in 1911: “Other writers mention the Li-ren or Li-mu, the aborigines of Hainan, and say they are probably the same as the Miao, and that the name seems to be retained in Liping, also in the south-east corner of Guizhou. We are not qualified to pass an opinion on that matter. It is, of course, quite possible that while most of the Miao were pressed westward by the Chinese, some of them may have been driven south, and might be found in the island of Hainan. The word Li in their name means “black “ or “ dark brown “: it also means “ numerous." [Source: “Among the Tribes of South-west China” by Samuel R. Clarke (China Inland Mission, 1911). Clarke served as a missionary in China for 33 years, 20 of those in Guizhou]

There is a State of Li, mentioned at the beginning of the tenth book of the “ Book of History," which was conquered by the Chief of the West, A.D. 1123. The Chinese have for four thousand years used this word to designate themselves, and still call themselves the Li-min, which is generally translated “Black-haired people." This name, which is one of the first the Chinese used for themselves, suggests a very interesting question. All the people among whom the Chinese are now living have the same sort of hair, eyes, and complexion as themselves. Why, then, did they designate themselves the Dark or Black people? Did they at one time have in the neighbourhood of people who were fair-haired and of lighter complexion than themselves? But the problem of the Li-ren, the Black or Dark men, the aborigines of Hainan, is a problem which must be left for some missionary or traveller to solve.

Li in Imperial China Era

According to the Chinese government: “People of the Han ethnic group began to settle on the island also before the Qin Dynasty as farmers, fishermen and merchants. Together, people of the two ethnic groups contributed to the development of Hainan. Later, the Han Dynasty sent troops under Lu Bode and Ma Yuan to set up prefectures and strengthen government control there and enhance relations between the mainland and the island. [Source: |]

Li in 1962

“In the 6th century, Madame Xian, a political leader of the Yues in southwest Guangdong, Hainan and the Leizhou Peninsula, pledged allegiance to the Sui Dynasty. Her effort in promoting national unity and unification of the country not only enhanced the relationship between Hainan Island and the central part of China but also helped the development of the primitive Li society by introducing feudal elements into it. |

“The Tang Dynasty (618-907) further strengthened central control over the Li areas by setting up five prefectures which consisted of 22 counties. In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), rice cultivation was introduced and irrigation developed, and local farmers were able to grow four crops of ramie annually. Brocade woven by Li women became popular in central China. |

“The feudal mode of production became dominant in Hainan during the Ming and Qing dynasties as elsewhere in China. Most of the land was in the hands of a small number of landlords, and peasants were exploited by usury and land rent. Large tracts of land were seized by the government for official use. Only in the Wuzhi Mountains did people still work the land collectively, but even this remnant of the communal system was used by feudal landlords as a means of exploitation. |

“Heavy oppression of the Li people kindled flames of uprising. In the Song and Yuan dynasties, the Lis in Hainan staged 18 large-scale uprisings; during the Ming and Qing dynasties 14 major rebellions took place. After the Opium War in 1840, Hainan was invaded by foreign imperialists who brought untold sufferings to the local Li and Han people, who rose repeatedly against feudal lords and foreign invaders.|

Modern History of the Li

“The first worker-peasant democratic county government in Hainan was founded there, and revolutionary base areas were set up in the rural areas. Soon afterwards, the Qiongya Worker-Peasant Revolutionary Army was formed. The Japanese invaded Hainan Island in February 1939. People of various nationalities in Hainan rose in resistance. In the spring of 1944, an anti-Japanese guerrilla force — the Qiongya Column — was formed. It grew into an army of 7,000 towards the end of the war, liberating three-fifths of the island.” [Source: |]

In 1926, some Li people established a county party committee of the Chinese Communist Party in Lingshui County. In 1928, the Soviet government set up a mission. During the Communist Revolution, the Lis established a “Red Detachment of Women". In the Sino-Japanese War there was a Baisha uprising and Qiongya garrison on Hainan Island. Li people coordinated the Chinese People's Liberation Army attacks on Kuomintang there and helped achieve the Hainan Island's liberation in 1950. ~

According to the Chinese government: Before 1949, the Li area could be labeled semi-colonial or semi-feudal, with a landlord economy. Many people were impoverished and was under Kuomintang control for some time. Hainan's liberation was followed by the campaign to wipe out remaining bandits and fight local despots. The Hainan Li-Miao Autonomous Prefecture was founded in July 1952 and the government provided the local people with seeds, farm tools, cattle and grain to help them develop production. Land reform brought tremendous changes to the Li areas. New water conservancy projects and improved farming methods have contributed tremendously to the growth of the rural economy over the years. Poor farmers were mostly illiterate in the past. They made knots on ropes or counted beans to keep records and notes. Now school age children can go to school. Hospitals, epidemic prevention stations and clinics have been set up in the prefecture and all the counties. Smallpox and cholera, once rampant here, have been brought under control while the incidence of malaria which once took the lives of a whole village, has been reduced drastically.” |

Gai Branch of the Li

leftThe Gai language or Gai dialect is spoken by 24 percent of the Li peoples. Inside this group, according to Chinese scholars, there are three local variations that can considered different dialects. These dialects are mutually intelligible, but the cultural differences among those that speak each is quite significant. [Source: Ethnic China *]

The people that speak these three Gai's dialects all call themselves Gei but otherwise are quite distinct: 1) The Tongzha sub branch mostly inhabit Baoting and Tongzha Counties, as well as the area west of these counties. They call themselves "fenta" or "tshontshan" and have traditionally lived in boat-shaped houses made of vegetable fibers. Due to the influence of their Chinese neighbors, most of their customs and festivals have disappeared. In the old days, men braided their hair and they coiled their hair in a red or black cloth and women tattooed their faces with two lines. Tongzha women dressed in Chinese-style blouses without buttons, with red embroideries and flowers in the back. A white cloth hung from a collar of white pearls. They used to wear a knee-length skirt with red embroideries of animals and plants. *\

2) The Zhidui sub branch live to the south and the east of Qiongzhong, in Zhidui County. They are almost completely assimilated into Chinese culture. Most of them dress like Chinese, and speak local Chinese dialects. Young people can no longer understand their own language. The women do not tattoo any more, and dress as local Chinese. 3) The Baocheng sub branch live to the west of Baoting, in the area of Chengxiang. They speak Chinese and sing Chinese songs. Their tattoo traditions and other customs have completely disappeared. *\

Li Language, Religion and Funerals

The Li speak a Sino-Tibetan language that is similar to Zhuang, Shui, Dong, Dai and Bouyei. Li languages belongs to the Dong - Zhuang group of the Sino-Tibetan language family of languages. Each Li group language, considered in China to be a dialect of an ideal Li language that in fact it did not exist. The Gai language has many similarities with the Ji language. The Bendi and Meifu language are also closely related. The Jiamao language doesn't resemble the other ones. Li languages and dialects do not have their own writing. The Chinese government helped them standardize their written language. A new romanized script was created for the Li ethnic group in 1957 with government help. Many Li speak local dialects of Chinese as well. *\

The Li people have traditionally revered their ancestors, worshiped nature, and believed "everything has a spirit". The Lis who live near the Han people have been influenced by Taoism. Christianity was introduced into certain regions where the Lis live. There is a village church in the Panyang region of Ledong County. [Source: \=/]

According to the Chinese government: “Death was announced by the firing of guns, and the body was put into a coffin hewed out of a single log and was buried in the village cemetery. Before 1949, animism and ancestor worship were common among the Lis who also believed in witchcraft. All this has been abolished since the island was liberated in 1950. [Source: |]

During the period of mourning, the family of the deceased wear their clothes inside out. In addition, they do not wash their hair and body for several days. They are also not allowed to sing, play music, beat gongs and drums, set off firecrackers or do farm work. Rice is prohibited in meals served during the mourning period. Instead people consume meat, wine and other grains. Guests should not eat pork porridge, beef porridge, chicken porridge or rice with a family in mourning. The funeral procession is not held at noon because it is believed that holding a such a procession at that time will bring about calamity. \=/

In July 2006, as many as 60 people were injured in a clash between police and villagers on Hainan Island that erupted after an outsider — a mainland businessman — intruded in a traditional spiritual rite. The villagers seized the car of the businessman and demanded compensation for damage caused by his intrusion. Violence broke out when police stormed the village to retrieve the car.

Li Totemism

Totemism among the Li endures. According to Li myths, each clan originated after the marriage of a woman and an animal. One animal that pops up time and again is the snake, the source of many local legends. According to one myth, Leigong, the God of the Thunder, laid a snake egg on the Li Mountain. From the egg came a woman called Limu—the mother of the Li— who fed herself with the wild fruits of the forest and lived in big nests in the trees. Many years later she married a man who arrived beyond the seas. Their descendants were numerous; they filled the mountains and started agriculture on the island. [Source: Ethnic China *]

The ox (often meaning a water buffalo) is important in the Li’s symbolic universe and their economic life. They are valued for working in the fields as for sacrificing to the gods. Whenever there is a a wedding or a funeral, an ox is sacrificed. In each house there is a precious stone that they call "soul of the ox." Every year, on the eight day of the third lunar month, the Li celebrate "The Oxen's Festival." On that day, oxen can not be killed or worked in the fields. Instead they stay at home and are given liquor filtered through the stone "soul of the ox" to drink. This is believed to protect the ox and guarantee plentiful harvests. The Fu in Jiaxing call themselves "children of the ox". They consider the ox to be their protective god. *\

The "najiaxila" bird is another animal sacred to the Li. According to the legend, a long time ago an ancestor of the Li had a daughter, whose mother died after her birth. A najiaxila bird took care of the daughter, feeding her every day with grains that it brought in its own mouth, until she grew up. As a reminder of this kindness the bird took on the rile of protector god and women tattooed images of its feathers in their body. *\

There are also legends of a woman that arrived in a ship and married a dog giving birth to the Li. In some villages the people revere dragons. Those named Shi among the Jiaxing Li call themselves "the children of the dragon." People living in some Gai villages consider the cat as their ancestor. They never eat cat meat, nor kill cats. When a cat dies they bury it with a lot of ceremony. Usually two unmarried young girls 12-13 years old, bury the cat under a coconut tree. They think the cat is their ancestor and therefore a sacred animal. They cry when a cat dies and believed after death its soul will maraud around the village unless properly appeased. *\

Li Festivals

The Li observe a very old calendar and calculate weeks according to a 12-day cycle, with each day named after an animal, similar to the 12 earthly branches used by the Han people. The days and months of the year go by the twelve Shengxiao: namely the Mouse, Cow, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Chicken, Dog and Pig. Often when an offering is made is done so on a certain animal day, every twelve days.

The Li people celebrate the Spring Festival in roughly the same way as the Han majority. Beforehand, every household prepares the "Nianfan" (Chinese New Year Eve feast) by making and "Nianjiu" (wine) and "Dengye" (a kind of rice cake). On the Eve of the Spring Festival, offerings are made to ancestors, and people enjoy feasting and drinking lots of "Nianjiu". On the first day of the New Year, people stay at home. On second day they go out to visit their relatives and friends, or go hunt in the mountains for mice, or try to catch river shrimp. Various activities continue until the 15th day of the lunar month.

On third day of the third lunar month, sometimes called Li Valentine’s Day, Li dress up in their best clothes, eat Zongzi cakes (glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves), and leave fish at a cave entrance as sacrificial offerings to the Goddess of Mercy. To show respect to elderly, Li take homemade prickled vegetables picked in the mountains, brewed wine, and cakes to prestigious old people in the village. Young men go out to hunt and fish in groups. Young women roast fish and cook rice. After holding a memorial ceremony, the young people engage in activities such as archery, pole-climbing, wrestling, tug-of-wars and swings. See More Below [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~; \=/]

San Yue San is three day festival celebrated on the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month (usually late March, Early April) by the Li, Zhuang, Dong, Miao, Yao, She, Mulao and Geleo minorities in China's southern and central provinces. Sometimes called Venus Day, it is a time when boyfriends and girlfriends are chosen and villages celebrate the occasion with singing, dancing, archery, wrestling, playing on swings, tug of wars, pole climbing and other activities.

Boys and girls in the Li tribe sit opposite each other in two rows and sing songs of love to each other. If a boy and a girl fancy one another they exchange presents and get engaged. The Li also do a special dance called the Bamboo Game, in which bamboo poles are placed on the ground in the form of a grid, or checkerboard, and dancers nimbly dance from check to check without disturbing the poles.

On Hainan Island Li boys and girls engage in a tradition called "Romance in the Mountains," in which they stand opposite each other in two rows in a dense forest of rubber trees and sing in a strange style. Every time the singing stops the boys take one step forward. The process is repeated until the boy and girl meet, then they go off into the rubber tree forest together. All of the minorities perform the Money Bell and Double Daggers Dance. In this dance one man holds two daggers in his hand. Another man holds a money bell. The man with the daggers tries to stab the man with the money bell, who in turn tries to run away.

Sanyuesan: the Li Love Festival

The Sanyuesan Festival is a local Li and Miao festival celebrated on the third day of the the third lunar month, usually in April or May on the Western calendar. Provides unmarried young people an opportunity to find partners, it is held in Qiongzhong Li and Miao Autonomous County. On that day, young boys and girls from nearby settlements get together in bright and attractive clothing. They hold hands and sing songs, do bamboo pole dancing, and have their dates in houses that are shaped like boats. At the break of dawn, they give each other a token, and promise to meet again next year. Young men and girls from nearby settlements get together in bright and attractive clothing. They hold hands and sing songs, do bamboo pole dancing, and meet at date houses that are shaped like boats. At the break of dawn, they give each other a token, and promise to meet again next year. [Source: People's Daily Online, April 17, 2013]

When dusk falls, on the third day of the third lunar month—Li Valentine’s Day—young men do traditional Li folk dances and young men and women sing and chant call-and-response love songs to one another in the mountains in the hope of finding a suitable mate. Large bonfires are lit. Young men open up umbrellas; the girls' silver decorations and shell ornaments glimmer in the flames. The young men and women gather in a place among rubber trees, where the green leaves shade the sky and a "leaf blanket" spreads over the ground, to enjoy a "love festival", where men and women can freely choose their partners. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~; \=/]

The sweet love songs that are sung gradually turn from being gentle and lyrical to being bold and unrestrained. Lovers in pairs eat "Dengye" rice cake with candy in it and quietly leave the bonfire, with young men hanging ear bells onto the girls' ears and inserting hairpins made of deer bone on the girls' bob, with the girls tying colorful belts woven meticulously by themselves around the waists of their lovers. Both sides swear to make an appointment at the same festival next year and will not leave without seeing each other. Because the origin of the holidays is related to marriage, it is also known as the love festival. \=/~

On the festival’s origins, there are two fables. One says that in ancient time, the Li people living on the bank of Canghua River suffered a huge flood disaster. Only a pair of lovers sitting in a big gourd ladle escaped, and drifted to Birdnest Mountain, where they got married on third day of the third lunar month after the flood retreated. The couple bore children, worked hard, and helped one another in difficult times, gradually enabling the Li people to multiply and develop. Later generations decided to honor the couple on March 3 with a grand commemoration.

The other fable goes like this. Long ago, on the Birdnest Mountain on the border between Changjiang and Dongfang counties, there was a large house shaped like a stone ship, where a very attractive Li girl changed into a stone sculpture of the Goddess of Mercy. On March 3 of the next year, a group of lovers were caught in a rain storm while playing on the mountain. They found the stone building and took shelter from the rain in it. Suddenly there was loud thunder and the gate to house shut. Wishing their children to be nice looking and live a good life under the blessing of the Goddess of Mercy, Li people celebrate "March 3" as their holiday.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, People's Daily, Chinese government, Nolls China website

Text Sources: 1) “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company; 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, ~; 3) Ethnic China *\; 4) \=/; 5), the Chinese government news site | New York Times UNESCO, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia and the BBC and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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