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Hainan Travel Guide

Hainan, China's largest island (not counting Taiwan, which is not currently under Chinese rule), is also the country's smallest province measured in terms of land, but curiously, it is China's largest province measured in terms of its geographical span, since Hainan Province includes numerous smaller and larger islands - some quite distant - including the archipelagoes of Nansha, Xisha and Zhongsha.

Hainan Province is also China's largest SEZ, or Special Economic Zone, the special, rapid economic development program that was launched by the government of the PRC under the forward-looking leadership of Deng Xiaoping during the 1980s for certain underdeveloped coastal regions that didn't already enjoy administrative autonomy like the municipalities of Beijing, Chongqing and Shanghai, perhaps in anticipation of the return of the highly economically successful coastal regions of Hong Kong and Macau that were scheduled to be returned to China in a not-so-distant future (Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997; Macau was returned two years later). Other prominent SEZs include Shantou, Shenzhen, Xiamen and Zhuhai. And continuing in the vein of Hainan "firsts", the province is also China's youngest.

Hainan sits at the southwestern tip of Guangdong Province, separated from the mainland by the narrow Qiongzhou Strait. Hainan is China's southernmost province and in fact, China's southernmost territory. To give an idea of just how far south the island lies, it is on the same latitude (18 degrees) as the U.S. island state of Hawaii, a fact which, combined with the additional fact that Hainan Island has the same white, sandy beaches and pure blue waters of Hawaii, has earned Hainan the title of "China's Hawaii" (the island paradise is set to be compared to yet another famous U.S. landmark, Las Vegas, if the current plans for the development of Hainan Island are implemented to the full - more on this below).

Hainan History

The island of Hainan has a history that parallels to some degree the history of the island of Taiwan, China's largest island farther up the coast. That is, the island of Hainan, like the island of Taiwan, was originally inhabited solely by ethnic tribes, though in the case of Hainan, they are near relatives, ethnically speaking, of the same tribes that still occupy parts of the adjacent mainland provinces, whereas the ethnic tribes who inhabited the island of Taiwan when the first mainland Chinese people set foot on the island were Austronesians, the umbrella group that includes the Indonesians, the Micronesians and the Polynesians. This prominent ethnic difference can undoubtedly be explained by the fact that while Hainan is only a short distance from the mainland, meaning that access to the island was relatively easy, Taiwan lies quite far from the mainland - in fact, very far for a people who lived in prehistoric or even in ancient "historic" times.

If you will forgive the digression, which also helps to explain Taiwan's early isolation from the mainland, most of the early mainlanders who arrived on Taiwan met a gruesome fate, since they were decapitated and their heads shrunk as part of a ritual ceremony aimed at protecting the island from outside intrusion. How these Austronesians "arrived" on Taiwan is an interesting discussion in itself, where some anthropologists have advanced the theory that they may very well be prototype Austronesians who then fanned out all across the southern Pacific, developing each their separate language and culture, even though their cultures and languages are all interrelated.

The prototype Austronesians on Taiwan were thus conjectured, according to this theory, to have originally come from the mainland at a much, much earlier period, where (on Taiwan) they developed differently (i.e., developed a pure strain... think of Darwin's conclusions regarding the various strains of species - akin to mainland species but radically different from them - that he observed on the Galapagos Islands) from all the other mainland ethnic groups that emerged later; though we may call these mainland ethnic groups the Bai, the Jinuo, the Miao, the Yi and the Yue, each group represents various prehistoric mixes.

The first specific mention of the island of Hainan in the historical record dates from BCE 110, when the Western Han (BCE 206 - CE 009) Dynasty established a military garrison on the island, though it is believed that the island already belonged at that time to the Xiang Prefecture established by the previous dynasty, the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty, which prefecture included all of the southern coastal region of present-day China as well as present-day Vietnam. Around BCE 100, during the Taichu (BCE 104-101) Reign of Emperor Wu of the Western Han Dynasty, Xiang Prefecture was divided into two prefectures, Dan'er Prefecture and Zhuya Prefecture. In BCE 46, during the Chuyuan (BCE 48-44) Reign of Emperor Yuan, the two prefectures were combined into a single county, Zhulu County.

During the Three Kingdoms (CE 220-280) Period, Hainan became a commandery under the Kingdom of Wu (CE 229-280), Zhuya Commandery, a name that harked back to Hainan's earlier Western Han Dynasty history. During the Southern Dynasties (CE 420-588) Period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (CE 386-588) Period, Emperor Wu of the Liang (CE 502-556) Dynasty, whose reign was from CE 502-549 and whose personal name was Xiao Yan (there were many emperors called Wu, or Wu Di ("Emperor Wu")), established a system of prefectures, or "zhou" (note that zhou can also mean "state"), in various parts of the country that did not already have a well-established system of rule. Accordingly, Hainan became the Ya Zhou ("Ya Prefecture").

This progression toward more detailed, or decentralized, rule continued during the subsequent dynasties, where, during the Sui (CE 581-617) Dynasty, Ya Prefecture was divided into two prefectures, Linzhen and Zhuya Prefectures. In the following Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, Hainan was reformed with a system of 5 prefectures: Dan, Qiong (meaning "pearls", since pearls have been - as they are still - abundant on the island's northern coast), Wan, Ya and Zhen Prefectures.

The next major shift in the organization of Hainan occurred under the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty, when there was a large influx of Han Chinese migrants to the island of Hainan, not because of war - though the previous period, the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (CE 907-979) Period, was a somewhat troubled period - but because the rulers of the Song Dynasty were interested in solidifying Han Chinese rule over the island, which theretofore had largely been inhabited by the Li ethnic tribe who are believed to be close ethnic relatives of the Yue people of the mainland. The new, Han Chinese immigrants settled mainly on the northern side of the island, with a relatively peaceful coexistence springing up between the newcomers and the indigenous Li people who withdrew to the southern side of the island.

During the Yuan (CE CE 1279-1368) Dynasty, Hainan became an independent province for the first time, though this status would later be reversed. One could argue that the Yuan Dynasty's successive rulers were eager to find "duchies" for their large "royal family". The subsequent Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty put an end to Hainan's independent status, assigning the island to Guangdong Province instead. Jurisdiction, or authority, during China's dynastic era was often distributed in response to very specific domestic power struggles or in keeping with very specific hegemonistic plans (i.e., in response to foreign power struggles and sometimes simply in response to perceived threats... one must not forget that Japan had its eye on any island that it deemed worthy of inclusion in the Japanese Empire).

During the latter half of the Ming Dynasty, a massive influx of Han Chinese migrants into Hainan led to a reorganization of the island, which was renamed to Qiongzhoufu ("Pearl-Prefecture Province", a seemingly illogical title that apparently made sense at the time), into a system of 3 prefectures - Dan, Wan and Ya Prefectures - and 10 counties. It also led to open conflict between the indigenous Li tribes and their Han Chinese rulers, who pushed into prime Li lands, thus forcing the Li to retreat to less-productive mountainous territory in the island's south-central highlands. The Li rebelled, and the bloody conflict that ensued caused the Han Chinese government to bring in mercenary Miao warriors and their families from Guizhou Province who were allowed to settle on conquered Li lands in the south-central highlands of Hainan (the descendants of these mercenaries inhabit to this day the western part of Hainan's south-central highlands).

Hainan Island developed a somewhat negative reputation as a place of political banishment already during the Song Dynasty. Anyone who criticized the emperor too vigorously (it was always the emperor himself who decided what was off-limits) found himself exiled for a period to Hainan Island (the banishment was not meant to be permanent, but was rather seen as a form of "re-education", a strategy that the communists would later resort to during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), rather than resorting to more severe forms of punishment, when trying to rid the country of "bourgeois ideology", though the communist "re-education" of the Cultural Revolution era was considerably more proactive than the simple involuntary relocation to a South Sea island that was practiced by the emperors of the Song Dynasty).

The inarguably most famous banished "prisoner" on Hainan Island was the Song Dynasty poet, Su Shi (CE 1037-1101), aka Su Dongpo, generally considered as one of China's most pre-eminent poets and scholars. It is claimed that Su Dongpo wrote some of his finest poetry while banished on the island, and according to his "minders", the famous poet ate prodigious amounts of a popular, south China fruit, also present on Hainan Island, called the lychee, whose innnermost, edible, soft flesh has a very sweet, flower-like flavor - all in all, not such an extreme form of punishment, except perhaps for the boredom and the lack of ready access to one's coterie of friends and acquaintances.

During the rule of the Republic of China (1912-1949), General Chiang Kaishek purged the city of Shanghai of communists, the result of which was that those who could escape fled to Hainan Island. On Hainan, the communists organized resistance to the Japanese, enlisting the aid of the indigenous Li people. The Japanese retaliated by killing one in three members of Hainan's adult male population. Hainan, like the other islands and archipelagoes of the South China Sea, became a much contested piece of territory once the Japanese recognized its strategic value. For this reason, these territories were some of the last parts of China to be recovered from the invading Japanese forces during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), which spanned the Second World War in the Pacific theatre (1941-1945).

But it was the government of the ROC that regained immediate control over Hainan Island, though this would lead to entrenched communist resistance, as the Chinese Communist Revolution (1946-1950) spread on the mainland. Thanks to the communist guerilla movement on Hainan Island, indirectly a result of Chiang Kaishek's (the Kuomintang's) anti-communist purge of Shanghai, the 1950 communist sea offensive against Hainan Island that led to an extensive landing operation from March to May of that same year was eventually successful, and Hainan came thereafter definitively under communist rule.

Hainan Island was the last Kuomintang holdout before the nationalists, as the members of the Koumintang were called, fled to the island of Taiwan. Taiwan would itself have surely fallen to the communists if the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-53) hadn't brought the US 7th Fleet to the area, where the nationalist government that had sought refuge on Taiwan offered harbor privileges to the American naval presence, which naval presence had the side-effect of checking the mainland Chinese pressure on Taiwan. Taiwan will surely eventually succumb to mainland Chinese pressure - though more likely economic rather than military pressure - since the economy of Taiwan is becoming increasingly integrated into the economy of mainland China.

Present-Day Hainan

Hainan Island has long been a popular tourist resort among foreigners, thanks to the island's warm climate, its sandy beaches, its pure, deep blue bathing waters and its invigoratingly fresh air. It has equally been a popular getaway for Chinese tourists. In addition, in former times, Hainan was popular especially with retirees looking for a mild climate in which to enjoy one's final years, in much the same way that the U.S. state of Florida has typically attracted retirees from the colder north, but that situation is changing rapidly on Hainan Island as the property prices and the concomitant cost-of-living prices on the island make living there unaffordable for many retirees on a fixed income.

Hainan Island has two main economic bases: agriculture and tourism. On the agricultural side, Hainan produces coconuts, paddy rice, sugar cane, peanuts, coffee, pineapple and other tropical fruits, sisal and special hardwood timber. Fishing, including a thriving pearl industry, could be added as a third major economic base, and the island and its immediate offshore environs is also rich in petroleum and natural gas. Thanks to its abundance of fishes and crustacea, the seafood-rich Hainan Cuisine has become very popular the world over, and Hainan's special coffee varieties are said to rival those of Columbia. Many handicraft items are made on Hainan Island of sisal, marine shells and even coconut shells.

On the tourism side, there are a number of interesting sites to visit on the island, including the Li and Miao ethnic villages. As is the case with ethnic minority villages on the mainland, the ethnic minority villages of Hainan offer a close-up glimpse into the unique customs of these ethnic groups, where the tourist can witness first-hand the colorful costumes, the unusual music and the ritual dances of the Li and the Miao, among others. The largest and original ethnic group on Hainan Island are the Li. They are represented on Hainan Island by nine cities and counties near the island's central and southern areas. The highest part of Hainan Island is the mountainous area in the center of the island. The surrounding region - beyond the foothill mountains - is what is called tablelands, i.e., they are relatively flat. Indeed, the tablelands of Hainan, which comprise some 60% of the island's land mass, lie only about 100 metres above sea level. It is in the mountainous region of central and southern Hainan that the Li and the Miao now chiefly reside.

Besides the Li and the Miao, there live small enclaves of Hui and Zhuang ethnic minorities on Hainan, and of course the Han Chinese dominate with about 80% of the total population, though the Li make up about 1/6, or roughly 17%, of the population, while the Miao make up an insignificant percentage of the island's total population. In addition, there are a number of individuals representing other ethnic minorities (37 in all) as well as countless other individuals on Hainan Island representing a mixed ethnic origin. Most of Hainan's Li, Miao, Hui and Zhuang ethnic minorities speak, in addition to their respective native tongues, Mandarin, while the young generally speak English as well, having been exposed for so many years to the island's tourist stream.

The most prominent Li cities are Dongfang, Wuzhishan and Sanya, the fun capital of Hainan. Autonomous Li counties include Baisha, Changjiang (meaning "Yangtze River"), Ledong and Lingshui, while the counties of Qiongzhong and Baoting are mixed, Li and Miao ethnic areas. Though the Li no longer reside on prime agricultural lands (the lower "flatland" of Hainan boasts exceptionally fertile soil and near-perfect cultivating conditions), they occupy in fact over half of the total land mass of the island. The cities of Danzhou, Qionghai, Tunchang and Wanning are home to various smaller ethnic enclaves, including Hui and Zhuang ethnic enclaves.

The city of Sanya has several sandy beaches, distributed among the city's three bays, Sanya, Yalong and Dadong, and which lie alongside picturesque coconut plantations. For the best swimming and sunbathing, Sanya Bay and Yalong Bay are not to be missed, yet Dadong Bay is closest to the downtown area and is therefore the most trafficked. Wuzhizhou Island, located in Sanya Bay, is the place to go for alternative water sports, from windsurfing to scuba diving to kayaking. Note that Sanya was a favorite hangout of the former Chinese leader, Chairman Mao (Mao Zedung), who was famous for his endurance swimming. Sanya was also quite popular with the Russian elite during the Soviet era, which explains the city's alternate moniker, the "Vladivostok of the East". In more recent times, Sanya is increasingly popular with Japanese and Korean tourists.

A must-see historical-cultural site in Sanya is Dongpo Academy, named after the famous poet who was exiled to the island during the Song Dynasty (to learn more about Sanya, click here).

The prefecture level city of Huikou, situated on the north of the island and the Province's capital, is also an interesting tourist destination for many reasons. It is older than Sanya, and though its average annual temperature is slightly cooler than Sanya's, the difference is negligible. Also Haikou has numerous white, sandy beaches, and because the traffic here is not nearly as extreme as in Sanya, it is a welcome seashore alternative for those who seek uncrowded beaches. Along Haikou's shores, the sandy beaches are interspersed not only with coconut plantations, but also with mangrove forests.

The attractions of Haikou are many, including its Old Town, with many modest mansions, many with a European flavor, that were built during the latter half of the 19th century by Chinese expats who wished to spend their retirement years in their homeland. One must-see attraction in Haikou is the Tomb of Hai Rui (1514-87), who was a highly respected Ming Dynasty public official renowned for his honesty. Hai Rui was so incorruptibly honest that he was poor (a government official's wage was not very high, and if he didn't take bribes, as Hai Rui refused to do, it could be difficult to pay the servants that were required of a person of such public stature). So penniless was Hai Rui in fact that he was forced to take extra work - such as writing letters, articles and inscriptions, or forewords to articles, etc. - just to make ends meet.

Because the emperor condoned corruption, including the bribery of public officials, and because Hai Rui publicly criticised the emperor for this (fully expecting to forfeit his life for such "impudence", Hai Rui had already had a coffin built and had said farewell to his wife), he was punished in the form not of death or conventional imprisonment, but rather, in the form of dismissal and banishment to a remote region, namely, to Hainan Island. After spending many, many years on Hainan Island, Hai Rui was released and was eventually allowed back into public service at the age of 72. At his death, Hai Rui left behind his entire "fortune" of only eight taels (a tael was the equivalent of 1 1/3 ounces) of silver and a meager few items of clothing, nothing more.

His uncompromising honesty had forced Hai Rui to live a very spartan life, a life devoted to the people. During the burial ceremony, one of the ropes used by the pallbearers broke and Hai Rui's coffin was accidentally dropped on the way to the burial site. This was taken as a sign that the honest public official did not wish for his body to be buried in the pompous burial grounds reserved for members of government, but preferred to have his remains buried in more simple surroundings, among the people. Hai Rui was duly buried where his coffin had accidentally slid to the ground.

Another of Haikou's noteworthy highlights is Wugong ("Five Officials") Temple (to learn more about Haikou, click here).

You should also visit Mount Nan - or Mount Nanshan, in tourist-speak, even though shan means "mountain" - where some of the oldest Chinese people live. Mount Nanshan is renowned for the longevity of its lucky inhabitants. But not only do the people on Mount Nanshan enjoy long lives, so do the native pine trees (Pinus massoniana). There is a traditional Chinese birthday saying: "May you live as long as the pine trees on Mount Nanshan".

With its year-round mild climate, Hainan Island is a popular tropical paradise that is increasingly becoming de rigeur as a winter getaway for the affluent of all nationalities who inhabit the colder, northern hemisphere. In fact, as part of China's recent efforts to boost the country's own domestic consumption in the face of a global economic downturn, the government has plans to develop Hainan Island as a casino resort à la Monaco or Las Vegas. Since increasing numbers of Chinese people are becoming wealthy, the idea of converting Hainan into a jet-set casino resort is part of a larger plan to ensure that select Chinese holiday destinations can compete with the foreign holiday destinations that might otherwise attract China's own well-heeled jet-set class. Similar casino resorts in Southeast Asia have proven a success, so the expectation is that Hainan Island will also succeed in this endeavor.

These new development plans for Hainan Island are seen as a natural outgrowth of the increasingly upscale nature of Hainan Island as a more exclusive tourist destination - certain parts of the island have long since surpassed the image of the backpacker holiday destination, appealing instead to the tourist who can afford to rent a yacht, or arrive in one's own private yacht. The hope is that in time, the entire island will become an upscale getaway for the affluent, both within and without China. In the meantime, most of Hainan Island is still within the economic reach of the ordinary tourist, though said tourist is advised to act quickly before this popular holiday resort is forever out of reach.

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