The Li ethnic minority has inhabited on Hainan Island since ancient time. At present the total population of the Li people is 1.2 million. Most of the Li ethnic group lives in the Hainan Li autonomous counties Ledong, Dongfang, Baisha, Lingshui, Changjiang and other counties, the two Hainan Li-Miao autonomous prefectures Baoting and Qiongzhong, and the two cities Sanya and Tongshi. A few scatter in Wanning County, Tunchang County, Chengmai County and Ding'an County.
Some 3,000 years ago, the Li people had already settled in the Hainan Island. The Li ethnic minority originated from one of the ancient hundred Yue nationalities in southeaster China. Ethnically, the Lis are closely linked to the Zhuang, Dong, Shui, Dai, and other ethnic groups. Some Luoyue people, a branch of the tribes in the south and east, traveled to the Hainai Island before the Qin and Han Dynasties. The inhabitants in the Hainan Island were called "Liliao"(namely, the ancestors of the Li minority) in the Sui Dynasty. As a proper name for the Li minority, Li with a rising tone is said to get its name from Li with a fall-rise tone (a proper name for the minorities living in Guangdong and Guangxi) in about the Song Dynasty. Before the People's Republic of China was founded, the Li minority was mostly in the phase of feudal mode of production. Some ten thousand Li people, who live on the border among Baoting County, Ledong County, and Baisha County in the hinterland of the Five Fingers Mountains, still keep the remnant of the communal system "System of Collective Mu" (Mu being a unit measuring the area of land) of the primitive kinship community.
Most Li people live together and form a community according to the same surname. 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 wear earrings, necklace, and bracelets. Some still tattoo their body, usually on face, the back of hand, and ankle. Women who were born after 1940s no longer tattoo their body. Men do their hair either in the forehead or at the back. The attires for men are nothing special. They wear collarless jackets. Death is announced by the firing of guns, and the body is put into a coffin hewed out of a single log and then is buried in the village cemetery.
The courtship and wedding of the Li people are very special. 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 boudoir not far from their parents. Most boudoirs are thatched hut with a big bed in it. Girls start finding mates for themselves after moving in the boudoirs. Young men are free to go into the boudoirs to chat and play with the girls. If the girl likes the young man, she will asks him to stay for the night in the boudoir. On the other hand, if she does not like him, she will asks him to leave. Once the free love relationship is consummated in the boudoir, the young man's parents will go to the girl's home to make the proposal formally. They often take with them some clothes and betel that girls like. Betel is the most important gifts for making the proposal. The girl's family may be dissatisfied with too little betel. It is very joyous and festive when the wedding is formally held. There are various activities. The bridesmaid and the best man sing chant love songs in answer to one another. The young couple drinks blessing wine in the joyous atmosphere. And there is also the procedure of "teasing the bride" in a variety of ways. The people in the whole villages prepare pork and mutton to help celebrate.
The staple food for the Li people is rice. Sometimes they eat some other grains. "Leigong Root" is a kind of edible wild herbs. It is cooked with little fish and shrimp caught in the river or with meat and bone, making it quite delicious relish. "Leigong Root" can also be used as herb that can cure inflammation and detoxify. "Nansha" is a side dish that the Li people used to eat. "Xiang" is a local specialty of the Li people that is put on the table only when there is a festival and celebration or when an honorable guest comes to visit. "Xiang" is divided into two types,"Fish Tea" and "Meat Tea". It is also the custom of the Li minority to eat rats and mice. Mountain mouse, field mouse, house mouse, and squirrel are caught and made into dishes.
Most Li people like drinking. They mostly like chewing betel.
Typical food: Bamboo rice (rice and meat are stuffed into fresh bamboo, and then roasted over charcoal) is a traditional local specialty of the Li people. In addition, there is the above-mentioned "Xiang", which is divided into the two types "Fish Tea" and "Meat Tea". Sticky rice cake is another typical food of the Lis.
Spring Festival: The Li people celebrate the Spring Festival in roughly the same way as the Han majority. Before the Spring Festival, every household makes preparation for the "Nianfan" and "Nianjiu"(diner banquet and wine to be served on New Year's Eve respectively), and pestle "Dengye" (a kind of rice cake). At dusk on the Eve of the Spring Festival, they begin to offer sacrifices to their ancestors, and then have the dinner banquet and drink the "Nianjiu". On January 1st according to the lunar calendar (the first day of the Spring Festival), people stay at home. On January 2nd, they go out to pay visit to their relatives and friends, or go to hunt in the mountains, or go to fish shrimp in the rivers. They also hold all kinds of festive activities with characteristics specific to the Li people. These activities continue until January 15th.
The 3rd Day of the 3rd Lunar Month: It is a festival peculiar to the Li minority. On every 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month, the Li people who possess the virtue of respecting the old take with them homemade prickled vegetables picked on mountains, brewed wine, and cakes to visit prestigious old people in the village. Young men go out to hunt and fish in groups. Young women roast fish and cook rice. When dusk falls, the young men start the traditional Li folk dance. Young men and women sing chant love songs in answer to one another on mountains in the hope of finding a suitable mate. When they find the right one, the young man and the young woman eat "Dengye" rice cake with candy in it. The young women tie colorful belt knitted with her own hands on the waist of the young man. The young man in turn put earrings on the young woman's ears or the hairpin on her bob.
The Li minority uses the Li language, which belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family. There are various dialects in different areas. Due to constant contact with the Han majority, the Li people also use Mandarin and the Chinese characters. The Li orthography in the form of Latin letters was designed in 1957.
The Li people have the practice of worshiping their ancestors and Nature, and have the superstitious notion of "everything has a spirit". The Lis who live near the Han people are influenced by Taoism. Christianity was once introduced into certain regions where the Lis live. There is a village church in Panyang region of Ledong County.
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.
Farming taboo on the day of offering sacrifices to the ancestors: The family members are not to do farm work on the day of offering sacrifices (the day when one of their members passes away) in three consecutive years after one of their family members passes away. If the one who dies is "Mutou" that is 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 Li people keep note of the days and the months of the year by the twelve Shengxiao namely, the Mouse, Cow, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Chicken, Dog, Pig, so there is an offering sacrifices every twelve days). The regions that still remain the "System of Collective Mu"do not do farm work on the days of Chicken, Cow, Dragon, and Horse. Men do not plough their field on the day of Cow. Women do not pull out and transplant rice seedlings on the day of Chicken. What's more, women do not transplant rice seedlings and twist paddy on the days of Horse and Dragon.
Marriage taboo: People who share kinship are not allowed to marry one another. White chicken should not be served on the day of making marriage proposal. It is believed that doing otherwise will make the couple quarrel frequently after marriage. Auspicious day should be chosen for the wedding. The days of Tiger, Monkey and Cow are avoided.
Burial taboo: In the period of mourning, the family members of the one who dies should not wear their clothes in the way as they usually do, rather they should turn their clothes over, and wear them in the opposite side of the clothes. In addition, hair and body are not to be washed in those days. They are also not allowed to sing, play music, beat gongs and drums, explore firecrackers or do farm work. Rice is inhibited in meals served during the mourning period. Meat, wine and other grains are some food that constitutes the meals. Guests should not eat pork porridge, beef porridge, chicken porridge or rice at the family in mourning. The funeral procession is not held at noon because it is believed that holding a funeral procession at noon will bring about calamity.\
Living taboo: Sleeping with head toward the door is inhibited for the reason that only corpses are lying with head toward the door when moved out to be buried. If any guests violate the taboos, the host will not be happy, taking it as a signal of mishaps being on the way. For people who live in the regions that retain the "System of Collective Mu", they should not mention their ancestors' name when slaughtering domestic animals as sacrifices.