The Li ethnic group, with a population of 1,247,814, mainly reside in Hainan Province, China's second largest island after Taiwan. Ninety percent of the Li are scattered throughout the Li-Miao Autonomous Prefecture in Hainan, with the rest living with the Han and Hui people in other areas such as Baoting, Ledong and Dongfang.
The Li ethnic group consists of five branches: the Qi, Ha, Run, Sai and Meifu. Their ancestors can be traced back to the Luoyue people - a branch of the ancient Baiyue tribe who once lived in south China. Early before the Qin and Han periods, ancestors of Li ethnic group immigrated into Hainan Island from Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. At first, they only lived in the monticule and mesa areas near the gulfs and rivers, later, they gradually moved to all parts of the Island. During the Sui Dynasty (581 - 618), they were called as 'Liliao'; and after the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279), 'Li ethnic group' was formally used to address them. They call themselves 'Sai' people. Having inhabited Hainan for over 3,000 years, they were believed to be the earliest settlers of Hainan.
They have their own language, which belong to the Li branch of the Chinese-Tibetan phylum. Although a written script was created in 1957, Han written language is commonly used.
They usually live in pyramid shaped thatched cottages. The roofs are supported with tree trunks and the walls are made of knotted bamboo strips coated with mud. Their houses have three doors in all, one in each side and one in the front. The house is often divided into three rooms; the side-rooms serve as the bedroom or kitchen and the middle one as the living room. Today, many Li people living near towns and cities build light and spacious houses with tiled roofs.
The Li nationality lives mainly on agriculture. Situated in subtropical zone with fertile land and abundant rainfall, their home is a tropical paradise for agriculture. People in some places reap three crops of rice a year and grow maize and sweet potatoes all the year round. The area is also the country's major producer of tropical crops such as coconut, areca, sisal hemp, lemon grass, cocoa, coffee, rubber, palm oil, cashews, pineapples, mangoes and bananas. Besides agriculture, other industries such as hunting, handicrafts, fishing, commerce and forestry also play an important role in their economy.
They have the earliest weaving technology in Chinese history. Li women are skilled in spinning and weaving and are especially adept at weaving silk cotton. The brocade they make has a long reputation for its magnificence and exquisite workmanship. In the very early days, they knew how to use silk cotton as weaving material. In the 5th century, Li textile technology reached a considerably high level. In the early Yuan Dynasty (1271 - 1368), Huang Daopo, an expert in ancient textiles, learnt then advanced the textile skills from the Li people. She returned to her native home in Wunijing (today's Shanghai), Songjiang Prefecture to teach textile technology, thereby pushing forward the development of China's traditional textile industry.
They are also famed for their knowledge of herbal medicine. Their remedies for snakebites and rabies have proved very effective.
They normally have three meals per day. Their staple food consists of rice, corn and yam. Vegetables are very rare. Bamboo rice, which is cooked in a bamboo tube, is the highlight of the Li food. They also like roast meat and pickled sour meat mixed with rice meal and wild herbs. Most of them are fond of drinking and they mostly make the wine by their own. Also, chewing areca is a popular practice.
The cloth of the Li ethnic group has a unique style. As experts of spinning, weaving, dying and sewing, they often make their clothes entirely by themselves. The men wear collarless jackets, buttoned down on the front. The women wear open-front blouses and close-fitting skirts. The women's skirts are close-fitting and reach the knee, showing off their beautiful figures. Women like to do their hair in a coil at the back and pin it with bone hairpins and wear embroidered kerchiefs. They like to wear silver jewelry, and some still tattoo their faces.
Today, most Li people wear Chinese-style clothing rather than their traditional costume. Traditional clothing is worn only for festivals and some ceremonies such as weddings and funerals.
Most Li practice traditional ethnic religions, including ancestor worship, worshiping earth gods and spirits. They believe the spirits of their ancestors have the ability to protect them.
They are good at singing and dancing. Their folk songs are rich in content with styles in three-, five-, seven- and nine-word sentences. The Li nationality dances combine art and physical culture and are brisk and lively. On each happy occasion, men and women sing in antiphonal style or sing and dance all through the night. They also have many different kinds of vertical bamboo flutes, some of which can be played either by the mouth or nose.