The Li numbered 1,110,900 in 1990 and lived in Hainan Li and Miao Autonomous Prefecture on the island of Hainan, off China's southern coast, in Guangdong Province. (Hainan has since become a province in its own right.) The Li language belongs to the Zhuang-Dong Branch of the Sino-Tibetan Family. Li is closely related to Zhuang, Shui, Dong, Dai, and Bouyei; the peoples are culturally similar in many ways as well. Although there is now a system for writing Li, most Li people make their written communications in Chinese. Many Li can speak local dialects of Chinese as well.
Archaeological evidence indicates that the Li people or their ancestors lived in their present location for a considerable time, perhaps as long as 3,000 years. Han people have been living on Hainan with the Li since before 200 B.C. , and Han control over the Li has existed since the sixth century.
Li settlements consist of small groups whose members are consanguineally related and who work together on commonly held lands and share the harvest. They build their houses in the shape of boats out of woven bamboo and rattan, and they use mud to plaster the walls.
The Li region is located at the base of the Wuzhi Mountains. The climate is tropical and there is a good amount of rainfall, which allows up to three rice harvests per year in some places. The Li raise coconuts, betel nuts, sisal, lemongrass, cocoa, coffee, rubber, palm oil, cashews, pineapples, cassava, mangoes, and bananas. They also raise staple foods like wet rice, maize, and sweet potatoes.
The monogamous Li have arranged marriages; a bride-price may run as high as several head of cattle. Grooms unable to afford the bride-price perform bride-service for several years. A newly wed woman lives with her parents, visiting her husband only on occasion; only when she becomes pregnant does she move in with her husband.
The Li are animists and ancestor worshipers. The dead are buried in single-log coffins in a village cemetery.
Other distinctive features of the Li are their skill in weaving kapok, their understanding of herbal medicines, and their twelve-day week, in which each day has the name of an animal.
Ma Yin, ed. (1989). Chinas Minority Nationalities, 405-410. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.
National Minorities Questions Editorial Panel (1985). Questions and Answers about China's Minority Nationalities. Beijing: New World Press.