Until the economic boom of the last 20 years, Hǎinán had been a backwater of the Chinese empire since the first Han settlements appeared on the coast almost 2000 years ago. Largely ignored by a series of dynasties, Hǎinán was known as the ‘tail of the dragon’, a place at the furthest reaches of the empire that was best used as a repository for occasional high-profile exiles.
But while the island has played only the most peripheral part in Chinese history, it has been home to the ethnic Li for more than two millennia. Looked down upon by the Han, the Li lived a relatively primitive, subsistence existence and generally minded their own business. As long as the Han remained confined to their small communities on the coast it was a strategy that seemed to work. Indeed, groups of Li living as hunter-gatherers were found in the mountainous interior of Hǎinán as recently as the 1930s.
This lack of exploration comes as little surprise when you consider that Hǎinán was known mainly as a place of exile for most of the last 1000 years. When Li Deyu, a prime minister of the Tang dynasty, was exiled to Hǎinán he dubbed it ‘the gate of hell’. So bad was the island’s reputation that only 18 tourists are purported to have come to Hǎinán of their own volition during the entire Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties (almost 700 years) ! That’s about the rate per minute during winter nowadays.
Su Dongpo and Hai Rui are other notable exiles, both of whom have modest memorials in Hǎikǒu. More recently China’s first communist cell was formed here in the 1920s, and the island was heavily bombarded and finally occupied by the Japanese during WWII. During the war Li and Han Chinese guerrillas waged an effective campaign to harass the Japan‑ese forces. The Japanese retaliation, however, was brutal – they executed a third of the island’s male population. And despite fighting alongside the communists the Li remain, together with a small population of Miao (H’mong), far the poorest people on Hǎinán.
In 1988 the entire island of Hǎinán was taken away from Guǎngdōng and established as a province and Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Before long it had emerged as an enclave of free-market bedlam operating on the periphery of the law. Unplanned, uneducated and unbridled development followed, with everyone keen to cash in on the soon-to-be tourism mecca. Alas, many were ahead of their time and until recently the carcasses of half-finished and abandoned tourist developments could be found littering the coast.
Today, however, mainland China has caught up and concrete is being poured, palm trees planted and vast pools dug at a truly alarming rate.