Li, Lizu
Total population
1,463,064 (2010)[1]
Regions with significant populations
Hainan, Guangdong and islands in the South China Sea
Hlai languages, Jiamao, Hainanese and Mandarin
Animism, Theravada Buddhism[citation needed]
Related ethnic groups
Other Tai–Kadai peoples and populations from Mainland Southern China[2]
Hlai people
Literal meaning[phonetic]
Alternative Chinese name
Literal meaningLi Ethnicity

The Hlai, also known as Li or Lizu, are a Kra–Dai-speaking ethnic group, one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognized by the People's Republic of China. The vast majority live off the southern coast of China on Hainan Island,[3] where they are the largest minority ethnic group. Divided into the five branches of the Qi (Gei), Ha, Run (Zwn), Sai (Tai, Jiamao) and Meifu (Moifau),[4] the Hlai have their own distinctive culture and customs.

Traditional weaving methods of the Hlai on Hainan Island, China. The worker uses her feet to stretch the handloom.


黎 (Lí), which was pronounced /lei/ in Middle Chinese is the Chinese transcription of their native name, which is Hlai. They are sometimes also known as the "Sai" or "Say".[5] During China's Sui Dynasty, their ancestors were known by various names, including Lǐliáo (俚僚), a general term encompassing several non-Han ethnic groups in Southern China. The name Li first is recorded during the Later Tang period (923–937 CE).[6]


Liang & Zhang (1996:18–21)[7] believe that the original homeland of the Hlai languages was the Leizhou Peninsula, and estimate that the Hlai had migrated across the Hainan Strait to Hainan island about 4,000 years before present.[7] According to Schafer, the Li people were originally spread out across the continental coastline, covering Northern Vietnam and the area west of Guangzhou, including Hainan. Their names were converted into the Chinese clan name Li.[8] The earliest mention of the term Li as an ethnonym was in the Han dynasty, referring to people of the highlands of Central Vietnam at Jiuzhen (Vietnamese: Cửu Chân). After the Han dynasty these people were primarily located in Guangxi and western Guangdong.[9]

The 3rd century Nanzhou Yiwuzhi mentioned bandits called (俚) who lived south of Guangzhou in the five commanderies: Cangwu, Yulin, Hepu, Ningpu and Gaoliang. They lived in villages with no walls and took refuge in the mountains and narrow passes. They did not have commanders or lords.[10][11] In the early 6th century, the Liang dynasty waged war on the Li people, calling it the "pacification of the Li dong".[12] In the Tang dynasty, the Li people of northern Vietnam were assigned a separate administrative status among the populace of the Annan protectorate, only paying half the taxes of ordinary subjects.[13] By the 11th century, records no longer mention the Li on the mainland.[14]

State administration of Hainan's lowlands was indirect until the Song dynasty and state control of the inland mountains was indirect until the 1950s. By the 11th century, Chinese records state that Hlai people were living close to Chinese settlements and paid taxes to the central state.[15] However by the end of the Ming dynasty in the mid-17th century, virtually all areas of Hainan capable of intense cultivation had been settled by Han Chinese, while the Hlai filled the niche of supplying mountain products. By 1700, the Qing dynasty had re-established administration over Hainan. Migrant merchants started entering Hainan and threatened the economic niche of the Hlai, who broke out in violent protest against these "guest merchants" in 1766.[16]

The shu Li live in the foothills of the Five-Fingers mountains, and although their nature differs from that of Han people, still they plow and plant and pay taxes and perform corvée service. They have been marinated in Han culture for a very long time. Therefore there are many Li people in every area who have shaved their heads and want to become regular citizens [qimin]. But it has not been made a clear order, and there are many shu Li who have not shaved their heads. There is really no uniformity. We should order the Li leaders to clearly order all shu Li to shave their heads . . . by requiring them universally and gradually to comply, we will make shaven heads the prevailing custom, and they will not be able to pretend to be sheng Li and cause trouble. It will gradually and imperceptibly rid them of their violent tendencies and habits.[17]

— Yang Tingzhang

In 1751, He Xiang wrote an essay titled "Arguments against Settling the Li and Establishing Counties." In it he explained that Hainan was dangerous not because the Hlai people were fierce, but because of malaria and poisonous animals. He mocked previous campaigns against the Hlai for conquering hamlets of no value or significance while several thousand troops died of malaria. The highlands inhabited by the Hlai were also not economically valuable, and therefore had not yet been transformed. While many Chinese generals had made a name for themselves by "settling Guangdong", they all left the Hlai alone.[18]

While its indigenous inhabitants, known in Chinese as the Li people, have frequently clashed with Han Chinese on the island, Hainan has never produced a noteworthy political or military movement that sought independence from China. There has never been a question as to Hainan’s allegiance and belonging. This sets Hainan apart from other troublesome border regions of China, including Tibet, Xinjiang, Manchuria, Mongolia, and Taiwan.[19]

— Jeremy A. Murray

During the Japanese occupation of Hainan (1939–1945), the Hlai suffered extremely heavily due to their communist resistance activities especially in western Hainan. Hlai villages were frequently targeted for extermination and rape by Kuomintang and Japanese soldiers. In four towns alone, the Japanese slaughtered more than 10,000 Hlai people.[20] The Hlai were persecuted by the Nationalists partly due to their support of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).[21] Nationalist forces massacred over 7,000 Hlai in a village. Nationalist officers had 9,000 Hlai and 3,000 Miao executed after tricking them to the war fronts during a fake conscription campaign. As the Nationalists retreated with over 1.5 million civilians that they evacuated to the hills with, they massacred and stole food from the ethnic Hlai as well as other tribal peoples. The Nationalists executed 2,180 Miao women and children of Baisha and Baoting uprising origin.[22]

Because the Hlai sided with the CCP during the Chinese Civil War against the Nationalists, the Hlai are looked upon favorably by the government of the People's Republic of China.[21]


The Hlai speak the Hlai languages, a member of the Kra–Dai language family,[23] but most can understand or speak Hainanese and Standard Chinese. The Jiamao language spoken natively by the Sai (also known as Tai or Jiamao) subgroup has been noted for its dissimilarity to the dialects or languages spoken by the other subgroups of the Hlai.

A Qing dynasty report on the Hlai dated 1756 claimed that they did not have a writing system.[24]


Women were able to become political leaders in Hlai society. In 1171, a Hlai woman by the name of Wang Erniang was bestowed the title of "Lady of Suitability" by the Song court and given the post of commander-general over 36 ethnic groups in the south. She was the headwoman of the Hlai people and had a husband but nobody knew his name. She was very wealthy and adept at keeping order over her people. The Song dynasty communicated with non-Chinese southerners by relaying their orders through her. In 1181, her daughter inherited her position, and in 1216, another daughter inherited the position.[25]

Among the Hlai, the women have a custom of tattooing their arms and backs after a certain age is reached. The Hlai play a traditional wind instrument called kǒuxiāo (口箫)[26] and another called lìlāluó (利拉罗). The Hlai in Wenchang assimilated into the local population and admixed with the Hainanese while most of the Hlai population was exterminated in most other parts of Hainan only a small portion of the Hlai survived and fled to the mountains where they still maintain a Hlai identity[citation needed].

The land of the sheng Li is not governed by officials [bushu guan], but they all have leaders. Among them are some who receive pawned goods, and they use a piece of bamboo as a receipt. The Li have no writing, and the bamboo they use is split into three parts, and upon it is carved the price and amount of “hill” land. The two parties and a mediator each carry off one part as proof of the transaction. There is not one who dares to cheat. Lately, however, dishonest, sneaky people frequently make counterfeits, which starts fights. . . . The Li people do not store grain. After the harvest they tie up the grain and save it and hang it over their stoves using the stove’s smoke to cure it, and eat it after a certain number of days. . . . They see this as very convenient. Among the Li there are no markets, and there have never been sellers of grain there. Poor people who lack food borrow from those who have rice. They do not calculate interest. Whether they pay back or not is also not a weighty matter. Lately there are many dishonest, greedy people who lend in the spring and expect repayment in the fall. They get profits from very high interest; their hearts do not follow the ways of the ancients![24]

— Zhang Qingchang


The Hlai were primarily animists. According to Hlai legends, their clans each originated from the marriage of a woman and an animal. The most prominent animal is the snake. Leigong, the God of Thunder, laid a snake on Li Mountain. From the egg hatched a woman named Limu (literally "mother of the Li") who lived off of wild fruits and nested in the trees. Eventually she married and their descendants became the Hlai people. Another version says that the woman arrived on a ship and married a dog, giving birth to the Hlai. The Hlai also worshiped other animals such as the ox, which was represented in each house by a stone that they called the "soul of the ox." The "Oxen's Festival" was celebrated on the eighth day of the third lunar month every year. On that day the oxen were forbidden to be killed or worked. They stayed at home and were fed liquor believed to protect the ox and guarantee plentiful harvest. The "najiaxila" bird of legend was worshiped as a protector god for taking care of an ancestor woman of the Hlai. Dragons and cats were worshiped as well since they are considered to be ancestors.[27]


The Hlai are believed to be descendants of the Rau people, Kra–Dai-speaking tribes of ancient China, who settled on the island thousands of years ago.[28] DNA analysis carried out amongst the modern Hlai population indicate a close relationship with populations in the Southern Chinese province of Guangxi,[2] most of them have Y-DNA O1a and O1b.

Notable people


  1. ^ 胡鸿保; 张丽梅 (2009). 民族识别原则的变化与民族人口. Southwest University for Nationalities University Press (4).
  2. ^ a b Peng, Min-Sheng; He, Jun-Dong; Liu, Hai-Xin; Zhang, Ya-Ping (15 February 2011). "Tracing the legacy of the early Hainan Islanders – a perspective from mitochondrial DNA". BMC Evolutionary Biology. 11: 46. doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-46. PMC 3048540. PMID 21324107.
  3. ^ Original from Indiana University Viscount James Bryce Bryce (1904). Hans Ferdinand Helmolt (ed.). The World's History: Oceania, Eastern Asia and the Indian Ocean. Vol. 2 of The World's History: A Survey of Man's Record. LONDON: William Heinemann. p. 60. Retrieved 20 December 2011. extended as far as the Han River, and the Man lived on the central and upper Yangtsze, chiefly on the right bank. But the number of the tribes that had not then been subdued must have been much greater; even at the present day, more than two thousand six hundred years later, tribes of original inhabitants in complete or partial independence are constantly found in the southern and western provinces of the empire. That such tribes as the Hlai (Limin or Limu, probably descendants of the Miaotsze to whom Kublai Khan [Shi Tsu] is said to have assigned a part of Formosa in 1292) should have held their ground in the interior of Formosa and Hainan is the less remarkable, in view of the fact that even at the present day whole tribes of original inhabitants have been able to maintain their independence in the provinces on the mainland, where the Chinese supremacy has endured for hundreds or thousands of years.
  4. ^ "Chinese Nationalities (Li Minority)". Retrieved 18 February 2011.
  5. ^ "MyTHOLOGIES OF THE LI/HLAI PEOPLE". Indigenous Peoples Literature. 9 April 2023. Retrieved 12 December 2023.
  6. ^ "黎族 (The Li People)" (in Chinese). 国家民委网站 (State Ethnic Affairs Commission). 14 April 2006. Retrieved 22 March 2020. 在我国古籍上很早就有关于黎族先民的记载。西汉以前曾经以 "骆越",东汉以"里"、"蛮",隋唐以"俚"、"僚"等名称,来泛称我国南方的一些少数民族,其中也包括海南岛黎族的远古祖先。"黎"这一族称最早正式出现在唐代后期的文献上...... 南朝梁大同中(540—541年),由于儋耳地方俚僚(包括黎族先民)1000多峒 "归附"冼夫人,由"请命于朝",而重置崖州。
  7. ^ a b Liang, Min 梁敏; Zhang, Junru 张均如 (1996). Dòng tái yǔzú gàilùn 侗台语族概论 [An Introduction to the Kam–Tai Languages] (in Chinese). Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe. ISBN 9787500416814.
  8. ^ Schafer, Edward (1967). The Vermillion Bird. University of California Press. p. 58.
  9. ^ Nola Cooke, Li Tana, and James Anderson (2011). The Tonking Gulf Through History. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 70.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  10. ^ Taiping Yulan "vol. 785 Four Barbarians – Nanman I: Li" quote: "《南州異物志》曰:廣州南有賊曰俚。此賊在廣州之南,蒼梧、郁林、合浦、寧浦、高涼五郡中央,地方數千里。往往別村各有長帥,無君主,恃在山險,不用城。"
  11. ^ Churchman 2015, p. 65.
  12. ^ Churchman 2015, p. 70.
  13. ^ Churchman, Michael (2010). "Before Chinese and Vietnamese in the Red River Plain: The Han–Tang Period". Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies. 4: 25–37.
  14. ^ Churchman 2015, p. 75.
  15. ^ Csete 2006, p. 229.
  16. ^ Csete 2006, p. 230.
  17. ^ Csete 2006, p. 247.
  18. ^ Csete 2006, p. 238.
  19. ^ Murray 2017, p. 2.
  20. ^ "Zhonghua min guo shi lu: Min guo yuan—san shi ba nian (1912.1.1.-1949.9.30)". 1998. ((cite web)): Missing or empty |url= (help)
  21. ^ a b "An Introduction to China's Li People". 30 May 2018.
  22. ^ (China), 中南民族学院 (1989). "Journal of South Central College for Nationalities: Philosophy and social sciences". ((cite web)): Missing or empty |url= (help)
  23. ^ Norquest, Peter K. 2007. A Phonological Reconstruction of Proto-Hlai. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Arizona.
  24. ^ a b Csete 2006, p. 241.
  25. ^ Bangwei, Zhang (2016). "Women: Ethnic Women Living in the Territories of Liao, Western Xia, Jin and Dali, and Ethnic Settlements under the Jurisdiction of Song". A Social History of Medieval China. Cambridge University Press. p. 218. ISBN 978-1-107-16786-5.
  26. ^ "口箫-中国民族乐器介绍". Archived from the original on 8 December 2007. Retrieved 3 December 2007.
  28. ^ "Li | Asian people". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 24 October 2018.