Hainan’s million-strong Li population take their name from the big topknot (li) which men once wore. They probably arrived on Hainan from Guangxi about 200 BC, when they occupied the coast and displaced the aboriginal inhabitants before themselves being driven into the highlands by later Chinese migrations. The Li built villages with distinctive tunnel-shaped houses, evolved their own shamanistic religion, and used poisoned arrows to bring down game. Li women were 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 have never coexisted very well, quarrelling to this day over territorial boundaries, and only united in their dislike of the Han Chinese – there were fourteen major rebellions against their presence on the island during the Qing era alone.
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 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 they formed a fifty-thousand-strong community in the remotest of valleys.