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Li: an Ethnic Minority

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods

Winter Volume: 2017 Issue: 24(4) pages: 24 to 25


This agrarian group of minority people live mostly on Hainan, Island, China’s second largest island. It is between China and Taiwan, and more than two dozen other minorities live here, as well; and they participate or watch the Double Third Festival known as Funianfu. At it, the Li do their bamboo pole dance running and jumping over poles held in place on or close to the ground by others not dancing at this time. This dance is now classified as a National Heritage item, so honored in 2006.

The Li say that the Lark Girl saved their people from consequences of a terrible drought. A chieftain did order his servants to capture her, but she and Yayin flew over many mountains until exhausted and could not fly any more. The Lark Girl was moved by his sincerity and offered to help him. After she did, both soared into the sky and local people wished them well singing and dancing. This actually did help minimize their drought.

Most of the more than one and a half million Li people live in or near Tongze, the capital of the Li-Miao Autonomous Prefecture, or they live in Baoting, Baisha, Changjiang, Dingfang, Ladong, Lidong, or other nearby counties. A few do live elsewhere on Hainan. No matter where they do, they grow several crops of rice each year, and two other staples, sweet potatoes and corn. In addition, they grow most of China’s coffee, cocoa, cassava, pineapple, banana, and mango crops.

The Li are monogamous. They select their own marriage partners, and have for many years. They maintain many pagan beliefs, keep some parts of other religions, live close to many Han and Hui people, and help produce and sell many minerals including iron, copper, phosphorous, quartz, and salts, the latter from the nearby China Sea.

They are one of the few ethnic groups in China that treat their own children the same kind way they treat any illegitimate children they have or help raise; and they think others should, too. Thus they have much tolerance. They celebrate the Double Third Festival doing that bamboo pole dance, and they believe in kindness and consideration for all. They respect their ancestors, like many tattoos, particularly on their faces, show kindness to all regardless of age or looks, and they are diligent, happy, and honest. The Li do dismiss selfishness as a behavior not to be indulged in, and they worship their own G0d called Paolongkou. They honor him on every holiday, honor all their elders, and treat all elders to lots of rice wine, pastries, and pickles on every holiday.

This minority entertains their God and others on every special day by playing their nose flutes. These instruments play three octaves and are most unusual. On these holidays they tell their children the story of Yayin and the Lark Girl often. Why, because they believe it teaches them wisdom and selflessness, traits they believe in and do practice themselves.

Li people tell the world they were first known during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE), and are the earliest descendants of Yue and Longyue people who came from Guangdong and Guangxi before the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE). They are a matriarchal society whose ancestors lived during the late Shang Dynasty, and that was before the 14th century BCE. They also tell others they started being Li people in the early Zhou Dynasty, which was circa 1045 BCE.

Many Li smoke heavily and drink heavily, too. This they mostly do before and after main meals at which they eat lots of roasted meats and many sour or pickled foods. They like their meat long-cooked and with many wild herbs. Li men do lots of cooking and roasting, their women often stay with her parents, particularly before she gives birth to their first child. The wife will stay there for three months after marriage before returning to what they call ‘her husband’s home’ though it actually is their home.

The Li use a calendar based on twelve animals, not the same twelve months the Han use. Their months are based on twelve-day cycles. Their language does have many dialects because it depends upon where they live and who their neighbors are. That said, many Li do not understand other Li people as they have different dialects and different customs. Many of them include those related to the Buyi, Dai, Dong, or Bulang people as many live near these populations.

This minority had no written language of their own until the 1950s. Some could read their ancient religious scriptures, but most we spoke to could tell us what they said or meant. Now, thanks to compulsory education, almost all Li youth read and write Mandarin and can communicate with each other.

It is common for Li girls to move out of their parents homes at about age sixteen. They live nearby and can be and are visited by young men. If she likes one, she often invites him to stay the night, and if he likes her, he can ask his parents to ask hers for her hand in marriage. Should he do so, and the parents approve, they bring gifts of betel nuts and clothes, and make her or her parents a marriage proposal.

Li women like to chew these betel nuts; they consider them a tonic food. They also like to prepare lots of bamboo rice, Li style, so it tastes sour. Their women are masters of delicate embroidery, and most can bake a cake called Dengye to serve on special occasions. One Li elder lady told us they fry it which changes its flavor. When eating it, they sing to each other. They also bake and serve this cake at funerals, but then do not sing.

An interesting Li custom is to dress their deceased in traditional Li clothing so ancestors will recognize them when they meet in their afterlife and so will recognize each other. This they deem very important, and every Li we spoke to said to be sure to share this with our readers.

We found no Li recipes for that cake or any other food; and if you know someone who has such a recipe, please share it with us so we can share it widely.

                                                                                                                                                       
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