LI LIFE AND CULTURE
The Li have traditionally lived in settlement comprised mostly of blood relatives. The community worked the land together and shared the harvest. They lived in unique boat-shaped thatched-bamboo houses with woven bamboo or rattan floors half a meter above the ground, railings made from woven bamboo and rattan, and mud used as plaster on the walls. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]
Most Li are farmers but they also make a living through fishing, forestry and tourism and other modern jobs. The region around Wuzhi mountain receives a lot of rain. The Li are able to harvest three crops of rice and raise coconuts, betel nut, sweet potatoes, maize, pineapples, lemon grass, coffee rubber, sisal, cocoa, palm oil, cashews, cassava, mangoes and bananas, They are skilled at weaving kapok and are regarded as experts on herbal medicines. The Lis are known for their skill in weaving kapok. They are also famed for their knowledge of herbal medicine. Their remedies for snakebites and rabies have proved very effective. [Source: China.org |]
The Li people are good at singing and dancing, and have a rich heritage of oral literature that covers many folktales and ballads. The native musical instruments are mouth bow (mouth chord), a vertical bamboo flute blown through the nose, and "Bai" (Paixiao, a vertical musical instrument made of bamboo), and so on. [Source: Chinatravel.com \=/]
Sources on Ethnic Minorities in China: Book on Chinese Minorities stanford.edu ; Chinese Government Law on Minorities china.org.cn ; Minority Rights minorityrights.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Ethnic China (very good site with good academic articles) ethnic-china.com
Traditional Communal Li Society
Around the time of the Communist Chinese takeover in 1949, 13,000 Lis still lived a primitive communal life of collective farming deep In the Wuzhi Mountains. A communal farm consisted of several families related by blood. They worked collectively and shared the harvests. This area was less developed than the rest of the island economically. The communal farms — the "Hemus" — fell into two major categories: smaller farms based on maternal or paternal blood relations and larger farms which admitted "outsiders" who had no blood ties with the original member families. [Source: China.org |]
Li bone hairpin “Each commune had a headman who was in charge of production and distribution and officiated at religious ceremonies with his wife's assistance. He was also a social leader who mediated disputes and was empowered to admit "outsiders" as communal members. Headmen and members were equals in the old days but, under the influence of feudalism, some headmen began to seize public grain reserves as their own and exploit "outsiders." Some later became government officials and degenerated into local tyrants. |
“While farm cattle remained public property, farm tools, hunting and fishing gear and work tools were privately owned by families. With the inception of private ownership of cattle and land, the practice of selling and pawning land became popular, as did the leasing of cattle and land. Rent was paid in kind. The exploitation of hired labor began to appear, and the primitive communal system gave way to serfdom and slavery. The establishment of prefectures and counties accelerated class differentiation among the Li people. |
“A social unit called "kom" existed for a long time in the Li areas. Koms were different in size, and had strict territorial boundaries between each other. A big kom consisted of several small ones which in turn were usually formed by two villages. Most disputes between the koms arose over infringement of each other's territory for hunting, fishing or wood-cutting purposes. Like many of the communal farms, the koms were based on blood relations, and each had one or several headmen chosen for their administrative ability or seniority. Headmen chaired meetings, settled disputes and formulated regulations. With the growth of the feudal economy, the headmen of the koms gradually came to represent those in power. |
Li people practice the monogamy, and the marriage is not allowed in the same clan. Marriages are usually arranged. Grooms pay a bride price, usually several head of cattle. If they can not come up with that they may be pressed into a bride service for several years. Newly wed women continue to live with their parents until they become pregnant.
Traditionally, when children came of age, they left their parents houses and moved into their own living spaces, called "Long Gui." Young men and women can date freely. Traditionally they played the nose xiao (a Chinese musical instrument) and stringed musical instruments sang love songs to woo the girls they fancied. When a couple decided to get married, they requested permission of their parents. In some regions, there is still the custom that the wife keep living in her parents' home temporarily after marriage.
In accordance with the Li custom, girls will move out of their parents' house when they reach the age of sixteen, and live alone in a special hut not far from their parents. Traditionally, these boudoir-like huts had a thatched roof and with a big bed in it. Girls start looking for boyfriends after moving in to the huts. Young men are free to go into the huts to chat and play with the girls. If the girl likes a young man, she asks him to stay for the night. On the other hand, if she does not like him, she can him to leave. [Source: Chinatravel.com \=/]
According to the Chinese government: “Before liberation in 1949, marriages were arranged by parents when their children were still young and bride prices were as high as several hundred silver dollars or several head of cattle. Those who could not afford the bride price were indentured to the bride's family for several years. Shortly after the wedding, the bride went back to live with her own parents until she knew she had become pregnant. These old customs have gradually gone out of practice since liberation. [Source: China.org]
Li Wedding and Marriage Proposal
Once a couple decides they want to married, the young man's parents will go to the girl's home to formally propose. They often take with them some clothes and betel that girls like. Betel is the most important gift for making the proposal. The girl's family may be dissatisfied with too little betel. White chicken should not be served on the day of making the marriage proposal. To do so, it is believed, would make the couple quarrel frequently after marriage. Auspicious day are selected. The days of Tiger, Monkey and Cow on the 12-day Li calendar—are avoided.
The wedding itself is a is very joyous and festive occasion. There are various scripted activities, including "teasing the bride". The bridesmaids and best man sing and chant call-and-response like love songs. The young couple drinks blessing wine in the joyous atmosphere. The whole village prepares and enjoys a feast of pork and mutton. [Source: Chinatravel.com]
Binglangyuan is a Li marriage ceremony. According to the China Daily: “Tying the knot with a Li ethnic minority girl in Hainan province's Binglangyuan is perhaps the Chinese version of the marry-a-stranger-in-Vegas experience.Upon entering the matrimonial hut, an emcee togs grooms-to-be with red vests and caps that incidentally resemble those traditionally worn by organ grinders' favorite performing pet. (China Daily March 19, 2009]
“But instead of a hurdy-gurdy, grooms get a shoulder pole with baskets dangling from both sides. The bride is armed with the same, and the couple takes positions at a balancing beam's opposite ends. They should pass each other without tumbling off or spilling the baskets. After hoisting the bride to ring a bell hanging from the rafters, smooching beetle nuts and crooning love songs, the couple retreats to a more private room. In this “honeymoon suite", husbands savor local candies with new brides and pay them 49 yuan (US$7.2)-plus a tip, if they like. It can be thought of as alimony.”
Li Food and Betel Nut
The Li people like roast meat and pickled sour meat mixed with rice meal and wild herbs. Their staple food is rice. Sometimes they eat some other grains. "Leigong Root" is a kind of edible wild herbs that is cooked with small fish and shrimp caught in the river or with meat and bone. "Leigong Root" can also be used as treat inflammation. "Nansha" is a popular side dish. "Xiang" is a local specialty served at festivals and celebration or when an honorable guest comes to visit. "Xiang" is divided into two types,"Fish Tea" and "Meat Tea". Bamboo rice (rice and meat are stuffed into fresh bamboo, and then roasted over charcoal) is a traditional Li specialty. Sticky rice cakes are another popular Li food. The are known for their fondness of eating rats and mice. Mountain mouse, field mouse, house mouse, and squirrel are caught and made into dishes. [Source: Chinatravel.com \=/]
The Li people have traditionally lived in the mountains and enjoyed eating mountain mouse, field mouse, and squirrel as delicacies. They catch mice in the fields, burn the hair in the bonfire, and take out the internal organs. Mice are generally roasted or boiled, and flavored with some salt and hot pepper. Li people also make pickled cabbage with wild herbs, livestock bones or wild animal bones as well as some salt that are all left to ferment in a jar. Li people call this kind of pickled cabbage "Nansha", also the name of a traditional women's dress. Nansha has a strong sour odor. It said that it can relieve summer heat and whet the appetite. It is an essential dish of Li people throughout the year. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]
The Li are also known for their bamboo tube food. To make it one must first chop a length of thick tender bamboo, and then fill it with fragrant glutinous rice, and the right amount of water, and mix some lean meat and salt into it. The bamboo tube is then placed above burning firewood. When the water in it is boiling, one is supposed to cover its upper mouth with leaves or a wooden stopper, and rotate the bamboo tube frequently to make it evenly heated. After the fragrance of rice becomes very strong, remove it from the fire. Then split the tube with a knife and eat the contents. Li travelers often carry several bamboo tubes stuffed with food in their travel bags. ~
Li women—and Li men too—like chewing betel nut. They cut the betel nut into small thin pieces and chew them together with the kernels. Sometimes dry betel nut is aired after it is boiled thoroughly, cut into small pieces. A thick liquid mixed with mussel ash and lime is added and the entire concoction is wrapped in "Fuliuye", so it can be chewed and enjoyed more slowly. The more one chews, the sweeter it becomes. Since it is believed that chewing betel relieves chest depression and prevents malaria, it is regarded by Li people as a mascot and a love token of the young. The Lis are also heavy smokers and drinkers. ~
Li Clothes and Pretty Girls
Most Li today wear the same clothes as the Han Chinese. After a Li dies he or she is dressed in traditional clothes so that he or she is recognized when he or she arrives in heaven. Men and women wear a straight, short sarong that extends only to the knee, convenient for work in the paddy fields. For ceremonial occasions Li women wear long tight-fitting skirts. In the old days Li women had their bodies tattooed at the age of 12 or 13. They used to dangle about a dozen plate-size brass hoops, weighing around five pounds, on each ear lobe. Indications of high status, they were typically sewn up over the head as headgear.
Li women wear buttonless blouses and tight-fitting long skirts. Women in some places wear pullovers. They do their hair in a coil at the back and pin it with bone hairpins and wear embroidered kerchiefs. They like silver jewelry, and some still tattoo their faces. Men wear collarless jackets, and those in Dongfang County wear much the same kind of jackets as women. [Source: China.org]
Li women are regarded as very beautiful by the Chinese. According to the Chinese government since Li women abandoned the old custom of tattooing “the natural beauty of the face and skin” looks “much more charming and elegant... Li people all live in the subtropical mountainous areas, and the obese body is obviously not suitable for the climate there. So the girls all have slender figures, moving lightly. Especially when wearing the bright-colored skirt made of Li brocade, close-fitting jacket and glistening ornaments, they not only show their curve beauty, but also present the musical beauty of the jingling ornaments. The young girls of the Li ethnic group have shining eyes, white teeth, thin lips, and wide mouths. In the coconut woods of the Hainan Island, on the sandy beach of the South China Sea, they are always so magnificent and dazzling.”
Li Taboos and Tattoos
The Li family members should not to do farm work on the anniversary of the death of a loved one for three consecutive years after the loved one passed away. If the one who died was a "Mutou"— a person in charge of organizing and leading a certain area of land—then the people who work on that area of land must observe this taboo. The regions that still remain under the "System of Collective Mu"do not do farm work on the days of Chicken, Cow, Dragon, and Horse. Men do not plough their fields on the day of Cow. Women do not transplant rice seedlings on the days of Chicken, Horse and Dragon. [Source: Chinatravel.com \=/]
Sleeping with head toward the door is forbidden because only corpses lie with their heads toward the door when taken out of the house to be buried. If this taboo is violated the Lif affected will not be happy, taking it as a sign that some calamity is coming soon. People who live in the regions that retain the "System of Collective Mu" should not mention their ancestors' name when slaughtering domestic animals as sacrifices. \=/
Li women used to wear tattoos. The process began when they were 12 or 13 and basically finished before marriage. The tattooing was very painful and was conducted in stages, in order to lighten the agony and lower the probability that the wound get infected. Middle-aged and old women in the family or the village did the tattooing. They first draw patterns on the girl's body, mainly on the face, neck, chest, four limbs, and some also on the belly and back. Then they put needles on the outlines of the patterns with small bamboo sticks, wiping the blood away with water while hitting the skin and applying a mixture of charcoal ashes and oil. Blue and green patterns appeared after the wound has fully healed and the scab falls off. Different branches of Li people and different clans had different tattoo patterns. In the old days it was thought: "If you do not get a tattoo, the ancestors will not admit you." It was also thought that without tattoos, women would have difficulty getting married and become wild ghosts after death. After the Communist Chinese came to power the custom was discouraged and considered primitive. Few Lis have tattoos today.[Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]
The tattoos were generally geometric shapes. The Run branch of the Li had the most complex tattoo patterns, made of curves and straight lines. Women from Meifu branch of Li wore stars and square lines on their face, neck and chest, as well as distorted frog's lines on their four limbs. "Qi" branch tattoos were generally straight lines and parallel lines. The Sai branch did not make tattoos.
Li Bamboo Pole Dance and Sports Game
The Li perform a bamboo-skipping dance similar to the one traditionally done in the Philippines. The dancers jump and an move between bamboo sticks that are rapidly separated and clapped together. Sometimes the three or four pairs of sticks are set up in a line and dance step through the line.
The bamboo pole dance is a traditional activity which Li people love. Whenever they greet important guests, celebrate important holidays or take the new grains to the threshing ground, people would do the bamboo pole dance, which often goes through all night long. The bamboo pole dance of the Li people is similar to the stick dance in the Philippines, [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]
The the bamboo pole dance is called "Ka Ge" in the Li dialect. At first, it was performed by men as the women banged the bamboo poles together to beat the meters. Later, as it developed, men and women jumped and danced together. Later still, the men were dispensed with all together as the female dancers were lighter and more nimble, and they looked better in their tight skirts. When doing the bamboo pole dance, performers place two five-meter-long bamboo poles parallell to each other on the ground, between which there is a distance of 3.5 meters. On the two bamboo poles, another set of eight four-meter-long thin bamboo poles are placed horizontally. Eight persons are divided into two groups to hold the eight bamboo poles on either side, each person grasping two thin bamboo poles in their both hands. ~
Following the rhythm of the accompanying music, people hit the two bamboo poles in their hands. The dancers jump between the eight bamboo poles, frequently making all kinds of movements. Meanwhile, the bamboo poles holders sometimes squat, sometimes sit, sometimes kneel, sometimes stand, enabling the bamboo poles to change their height. Dancers who respond to slowly will have his or her ankles, legs, or waists are gripped by the poles. When this happens the audience laughs, the gripped person is lifted by the bamboo poles off the stage. The one who can persist to end sits on the bamboo poles and is lifted highly, receiving cheers and congratulations. ~
Other sports and games enjoyed of the Li ethnic group, include “shooting the cow legs,” “crossing the cane circle,” and "beating a dog and return to the slope." Nearly all of them are related with the hunting activities. Shooting the cow legs means to shoot arrows through cow legs hanging on the big tall trees. The one who hits the target first get the cow legs as his prize. ~
Li Weaving and Crafts
Li women are famous for their weaving skills, especially making cotton cloth and textiles. A famous Han weaver visited Hainan Island in the13th century and learned the techniques for making fine cotton cloth from Li women. The technique was then spread around China and gave birth to the cotton industry. Li women have produced fine brocades for more than a thousand years. They are also known for wonderful embroidery.The Li, Miao and Yao peoples produced many kinds of textiles such as Bolup cloth, Mao (hawksbill) cloth, Zhu cloth (light blue or white cotton cloth), Yaoban cloth (blue batik with white speckles), ramie cloth and kapok cloth. Wax printing is a unique technique developed by some Chinese ethnic groups for printing and dying hand-made cloth. The blue and white pattens reveal natural cracks made when wax cools.
In the Tang and Song dynasties, Li techniques of cotton spinning and weaving were far ahead of the techniques used in the Central Plains. In the early years of the Yuan Dynasty, Huang Daopo, a renowned Chinese female scientist, went to Yazhou to study the spinning and weaving craft of Li people. Later she taught Li techniques in Yangtze River area and helped spread Li cotton spinning and weaving to the Central Plain. Running away as a child bride from her home in Shanghai, Huang, she lived with the Li on Hainan. She is credited with inventing a cotton fluffer, a pedal spinning wheel and looms, which were the most advanced in the world at the time. [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 ~]
Li "two-sided embroidery" is particularly outstanding. It is mainly used as a coat and clothing decoration. Sometimes it is used to give prominence to patterns; other times is used a trim. Li people select their clothing designs from human being, animals, plant and geometric figures that can be seen in their ordinary life. Red, yellow, and white are preferred colors. On their kerchiefs, coats, and skirts Li women sometimes insert gold and silver foil, mica flakes and feathers. They also use shells, stringed beads, copper coins, copper bells and tassels as decorations. Sometimes the both sound and color are desired for the dramatic effect they produce. A Li brocade research institute has been set up in Wuzhishan (Formerly the city of Tongshi). ~
The engraved bone ornaments of the Li people are vivid, and shapely. The human-shaped bone hairpin on women’s headwear are among the most remarkable. One such hairpin at the Shanghai Museum is made of cow bone with exquisite carving. The upper part is carved in the shape of a crowned human head, with a majestic look, which is said to be a leader worshipped by the ancient Li people; while the lower part is decorated with horizontal stripes, symbolizing good fortune. [Source: Shanghai Museum]
The Shanghai Museum displays a “Bone Hair Pin with Incised Design”.According to the museum: Made of ox-bone, this pin was delicately carved into the shape of a human. It is said the image was a chieftain of local ethnic group and received worship from Li people in ancient times. A human head, with a dignified expression, was carved on the upper part and the incised decoration on the lower portion.
Traditional Li Textile Techniques Recognized by UNESCO
Traditional Li textile techniques: spinning, dyeing, weaving and embroidering was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2009 and is :in need of urgent safeguarding.” According to UNESCO: The traditional Li textile techniques of spinning, dyeing, weaving and embroidering are employed by women of the Li ethnic group of Hainan Province, China, to make cotton, hemp and other fibres into clothing and other daily necessities. The techniques involved, including warp ikat, double-face embroidery, and single-face jacquard weaving, are passed down from mothers to daughters from early childhood through verbal instruction and personal demonstration. [Source: UNESCO]
Li women design the textile patterns using only their imagination and knowledge of traditional styles. In the absence of a written language, these patterns record the history and legends of Li culture as well as aspects of worship, taboos, beliefs, traditions and folkways. The patterns also distinguish the five major spoken dialects of Hainan Island. The textiles form an indispensable part of important social and cultural occasions such as religious rituals and festivals, and in particular weddings, for which Li women design their own dresses.
As carriers of Li culture, traditional Li textile techniques are an indispensable part of the cultural heritage of the Li ethnic group. However, in recent decades the numbers of women with the weaving and embroidery skills at their command has severely declined to the extent that traditional Li textile techniques are exposed to the risk of extinction and are in urgent need of protection.
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, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China *\; 4) Chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | 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