The Li are one of 55 recognized ethnic minorities in China. Together with the Miao, a total of 1.3 million people inhabit the mountainous areas in south-central Hainan Island and were taken there by Han immigrants, who removed them from their villages, traditionally located on the island's coast, in the fifteenth century. It is believed that they went to Hainan, south of China, more than 2 or 3 thousand years ago. Considered by the Chinese to be a remote and sometimes more mysterious place than Mongolia or Tibet, the region was then dubbed “The Dragon's Tail,” a wild place at the end of the Chinese world.
With the establishment of the communist government in the country in 1949, ideologically atheistic, policies were initiated to eradicate superstitions and to change prevailing customs and social traditions, so that the whole territory became as uniform as possible. Quickly, the Li people's animistic beliefs collapsed, along with their rice-growing economy.
However, the earth has always been responsible for holding the Li together, carrying the divine, the mythical, and the ritual in a complex belief system. The character of their life experiences, in physical and psychological terms, continued to stand out for their inherent collectivity, all witnessed by their surroundings. Thus, many of their beliefs-related practices were maintained because of their strong metaphysical character, one of them being tattooing, seen as the guiding element after death.
As animists, the Li were spiritually guided by shamans who, through their ability to communicate with spirits, deities, and ancestors, functioned as mediators between the physical and the supernatural worlds.
Li culture and its cosmology were embodied in individuals through musical traditions, but it was also inscribed on the skin through tattoos. All five Li ethnic groups were tattooed and the practice was mainly among women. Men used to tattoo themselves with only three lines around their wrists for medical purposes. Among women, the designs differed not only from one tribe to another, but also between families.
Curiosity: The Li are among the first Chinese to develop weaving technology, and are still known today for their beautiful colored fabrics. Li women are famous for their skill in weaving and sewing silk. Each group develops specific patterns for their fabrics and through the drawings, it is possible to know which village and to which social class the woman belongs. The same happens with tattoos, which are social and identity indicators of each Li.
In the Basadung tribe, the girl begins to get tattooed when she is 13 or 14 years old. An older woman, not necessarily related, first grasps her on the back of the neck and then on the face and throat over the course of four or five days. For the next three years, his arms and legs are also tattooed. If a family member dies in the course of these years, the process is interrupted.
The marking of the designs on the skin is made with china ink (also known as nanjing); a plant thorn is used to pierce the skin and then a mixture of soot and water (a more primary form of the ink itself) is rubbed into the wounds.
The Meifu tribe basically adhered to the same practice as the Basadung. The other tribes also use the same techniques, but have created a different design that starts at the chin and extends around the neck in two pairs of lines. The lines continue down the trunk, across the chest and down to a navel circle.
Do tattoos This means that a woman can now be chosen to marry, and the tattooing ritual was accompanied by an elaborate ceremony in the village center to celebrate the girl's puberty. Interviewed in the 1930s for a story published in National Geographic magazine, women reported that tattoos not only made them more beautiful, but also allowed them to be recognized by their ancestors after death.
Currently, the practice is fading, and tattoos are only found on older women. Hainan Island has gone from being the mysterious “Dragon Tail” to a tourist spot. The mountainous region where the Li and Miao live receives thousands of visitors throughout the year, and tourism is now extremely important to the economy of the place, along with its millennial weaving.
- Article by Francine Oliveira in the late Tattoo Tattoo