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Li: an Ethnic Minority
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
Most of the more than one
and a half million Li people
live in or near Tongze, the
capital of the Li-Miao Autonomous
they live in Baoting, Baisha,
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
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
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
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.