The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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The Last of the Li on Hainan Island, 1920 – 1980

Principal Investigator


Total Fund Awarded


Funding Source

RGC General Research Fund

Abstract of Project

         This project studies the social transformation among the Li people of Five Finger Mountain (Wuzhi shan) in Hainan province from the 1920s to the 1980s. Broadly, that was the period from the Republican government’s interest in the economic development of Hainan Island until the beginnings of economic reforms after the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
The first impact of this project will be on an understanding of the Li people of Hainan. The Li people are not prominently studied in China or the West, and this project will raise awareness of their ethnic history.
         The second impact comes in the broader field of Chinese ethnic history. In this project, I challenge the fixation of the ethnic landscape that is formed at the point of conflict between local society and the imperial state. Broadly, this approach agrees with Harrell’s view (Harrell 1995, 2001) that ethnicity comes about as the southwest is brought in the imperial state’s civilization process. Nevertheless, especially in the case of the Li, I shall point out that the “civilization process” leads to complicities of local people in accepting dominant (ie Chinese) ethnic markers, and, so, I begin my research by doubting if it is true that the Li at Five Finger Mountain had been left behind in the process of state and economic development in the first half of the twentieth century, or, if, alternatively, it may be argued that the impoverisation of the Li was really the result of successful communities departing from the ethnic realm. In putting forward this argument, I am inverting the ethnic domination argument: my argument is not only that the more resourceful people dominate, but that the more resourceful define themselves out of the minority situation as they dominate. The lack of development of the indigenous is, therefore, partly an error of vision. Indigenous people who succeed in the “civilisation process” disappear from the historical record by integrating into the dominant society.
         The third impact will be on my own work. I have for some time been researching the history of boat communities in south China, as well lineage society in southwest Guangdong and Jiangxi, primarily in the Ming and the Qing dynasties. As a sideline, I have also been interested in the influence of the Chinese Communist Party at the Anyuan coal mine in 1920s. This project ties in very closely with all three interests. An understanding of the Li on the hills in Hainan will provide me with a contrast with the boat people’s communities, especially in the ways in which they related to land communities; and the involvement of the CCP in the Baisha Uprising of 1943, which will be an important part of this study, will provide an interesting comparison with the workers’ movement at Anyuan. In both Baisha and Anyuan, local cultural connections (being Li or not in Baisha, and originating from Jiangxi or Hunan in the case of Anyuan) were a major factor in local politics.

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