Until the economic boom of the last 30 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,’ ‘the gate of hell’, and a place best used as a repository for occasional high-profile exiles such as the poet Su Dongpo and the official Hai Rui.

More recently, China’s first communist cell was formed here in the 1920s, and the island was heavily bombarded and then occupied by the Japanese during WWII. Li and Han Chinese guerrillas waged an effective campaign to harass the Japanese forces but the retaliation was brutal – the Japanese executed a third of the island’s male population. Even today resentment over Japanese atrocities lingers among the younger generation.

In 1988 Hǎinán was taken away from Guǎngdōng and established as its own province and Special Economic Zone (SEZ). After years of fits and starts, development is now focused on turning tropical Hǎinán into an ‘international tourism island’ by 2020. What this really means, besides developing every beach, and building more golf courses and mega-transport projects (such as a high-speed rail service around the island, a cruise-ship terminal and even a spaceport), is not entirely clear.

The Li & Miao

The Li, who today number over one million and can only be found on Hǎinán, were the island’s first-known settlers, likely immigrating from southern China several thousand years ago. The Li were followed by the Miao (H’mong), who can also be found across stretches of northern Vietnam, Laos and Thailand; their arrival pushed the Li into the central highlands. When Han settlers arrived in big numbers during the Qing dynasty, they pushed the Miao, who in turn pushed the Li even further into the mountains.

Today both populations occupy some of the most rugged terrain on the island, in the forested areas covering the Límǔlǐng Shān (Mother of the Li Mountain) range that stretches down the centre of the island. Since 1987, several counties in the central highlands have been designated as Li and Miao autonomous regions, which afford the minority groups a degree of independent governance.

Visitors to the central highlands will see visual markers of Li culture, including architecture adorned with traditional geometric symbols and children in school uniforms hemmed with colourful embroidery.