Hainan’s million-strong Li population take their name from the big topknot (li) which men once wore. Archeological finds and traditions shared with other southwestern Chinese peoples point to their arriving on Hainan from Guangxi about 200 BC, when they occupied the coast and displaced the aboriginal inhabitants. Driven inland themselves by later Han arrivals, the Li finally settled Hainan’s central highlands (though a few remained on the coast) and spent the next two thousand years as rice farmers and hunters, living in villages with distinctive tunnel-shaped houses, evolving their own shamanistic religion, and using poisoned arrows to bring down game. Li women have long been known for their weaving skills, and the fact that, until very recently, many got their faces heavily tattooed with geometric patterns – apparently to make them undesirable to raiding parties of slavers from the coast, or rival clans. The latter form five major groups – Ha, Qi, Yun, Meifu and Cai – and they have never coexisted very well, quarrelling to this day over territorial boundaries and only really united in their dislike of external rulers.

Though actively supporting Communist guerrillas against the Japanese, the Li have no great affection for the Han as a whole, and there were fourteen major rebellions against their presence on the island during the Qing era alone. Superficially assimilated into modern China, the Li would probably revolt again if they felt they could get away with it. They are, however, pretty friendly towards outside visitors, and though traditional life has all but vanished over the last half-century, there are still a few special events to watch out for. Best is the San Yue San festival (held on the third day of the third lunar month), the most auspicious time of the year in which to choose a partner, while in more remote corners of the highlands, funerals are traditionally celebrated with gunfire and three days of hard drinking by male participants.

Touted as Hainan’s second “native minority” by the tourist literature, the Miao are in fact comparatively recent arrivals, forcibly recruited from Guizhou province as mercenaries to put down a Li uprising during the Ming dynasty. When the money ran out, the Miao stopped fighting and settled in the western highlands, where today they form a fifty-thousand-strong community. The US adventurer Leonard Clark, who traversed the highlands in 1937, reported them as living apart in the remotest of valleys, though they now apparently intermarry with the Li (for more on the Miao).

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