The Li: a generic name for Hainan aborigines


Li is the word used to denominate the indigenous inhabitants of Hainan Island. An island located in the south of China, in front of the costs of Guangdong Province. Their population was 1,247,000 inhabitants according to the national census of the year 2000. About 60% of them live inside their autonomous areas, and the rest in the nearby districts.

Most of the Li peoples live in the Li Autonomous Prefecture, a mountainous area with abundant forests and tropical climate. They are especially concentrated in the following counties: Ledong, Ya, Lingshui, Baoting, Qiongzhong, Baisha, Dongfang, Changjiang. It is considered that Baisha, Baoting and Ledong counties are the heart of the Li country.

But "Li" is only the name with which the Chinese have denominated them. It is considered that there are, at least, five well differentiated branches of the Li, who in fact, call themselves in different ways:

The Gai. They are the 58% of the Li.
The Ji, 24%.
The Bendi, 6%.
The Meifeu, 4%
The Jiamao, 7%.

These branches speak different dialects (or languages), sometimes unintelligible to each other, they dress in a different way and they conserve some equally different customs. Then we suggest using "Li" as a generic name: "the Li tribes" that will include, at least, the previously mentioned five ethnic groups.

Their language belongs to the Dong - Zhuang family. Each one of the Li ethnic groups has their own language, considered in China a dialect of an ideal Li language that in fact it did not exist.

Gai language has many similarities with Ji language.
Bendi and Meifu language are also closely related.
The Jiamao language doesn't resemble the other ones.

There is also living in Hainan Island, an ethnic group called Danzhou whose origin has possibly been forged in centuries of slow interaction between Hainan aboriginal and Chinese immigrants. Years ago they requested the Chinese Government to be recognized as a national minority, without success.

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