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Li textiles: references

This search through my literature for information on Li textiles arose from my own collecting and from a question posed on the tribaltextiles.info forum by Olivier Tallec.

go to Olivier's Li question on the forum

I subsequently found some good photos on the http://www.ethnoecho.com/ethnic/clothings/liset.html web site of a Li tube skirt and blouse (probably Ba-sa-dung Li) and posted the link on the forum and emailed Olivier who responded with information that he had similar textiles to those on the ethnoecho.com site as well as others of which he sent me photos.  These textiles appear to be from two further and different Li sub-groups.

This sent me back to my library and, in particular, to the 1937 photographs from Hans Stübel included in the references below. 

There seems to be relatively little information available on Li textiles. In my own library I have three volumes which have some information on Li textiles. 

The first is a small pocket sized book which has a surprising amount of both written and photographic information.  It is "Costume of the Minority Peoples of China", a joint Japanese-Sino publication project.  My edition was published in 1996 but the preface is dated October 1980.  This may account for the smaller population figures given for the Li in Hainan compared with the other references listed below.

Descriptive text may be found on pages 287-289: "The Noctilucent Pearl on the Southern Sea, a synonym for Hainan Island, includes Wuzhishan and Limuling areas, which have been inhabited for successive generations by the hardworking intelligent Li people now numbering six hundred and eighty thousand in all.

When we talk about peoples in the south, we are immediately reminded of excellent fabrics woven by Li women…….In fact, some historical books tell us that as early as the 1st century BC, Li women had begun weaving cloth called guangfubu, a product of their own spinning and dyeing as well as weaving. Later the Li people’s woven goods such as gubibu, panbanbu and shidan (tablecloth) came to be offered to the court as tribute. Especially in the period from the 10th to the 13th century witnessed their weaving techniques highly reputed in the southern part of China. The high reputation continued even in the Qing Dynasty as indicated by a line reading "Li brocade is as fascinating as clouds" which is found in a poem composed in that period.

The clothes that Li people wear slightly differ according to their tribes. However, more and more Li women have gradually come to wear almost the same clothes as the Han, the majority people, with the exception of the Bendi Li tribe who are even today dressed in a traditional outer garment with no fastening but only holes at the top and sides for the head and arms to pass through. As for skirts, however, most of the Li women still wear a cylindrical skirt. Changes in the Li women’s clothes can be explained as follows: As for outer garments they first changed from a buttonless collarless garment with no fastening to one which has neither a button nor a collar but is fastened at the front and then to a collared one with buttons fastened at the right side (the same as the garment worn by the Han). On the other hand, their skirts changed from a short to a long cylindrical one and then to trousers (the same as the trousers worn by the Han). Designs on their outer garments have also experienced changes from complicated designs into simpler ones and now some women even wear clothes with no pattern.

Compared with the changes in clothes for women, men’s clothes have undergone even greater changes.

Many of the Li women wear their hair tied up at the back of the head and ornament it with hairpins made of bone. Having an embroidered kerchief on, they also wear earrings, necklaces and bracelets.

As might be expected, Li women are skillful at dyeing and handloom-weaving. They not only utilize raw cotton and hemp fibers as their main materials for tailoring clothes but also have an excellent knowledge of the collection of wild plants to be used as dyestuffs. Experienced in the art of spinning yarn and weaving cloth from the age of seven or eight, they are able to combine their own original ideas with traditional techniques including those of colour arrangement and "tie-dyeing". They weave exquisite products with splendid multi-coloured designs out of cotton and hemp fibers and embroidery thread of five colours (blue, yellow, red, white and black) by using simple and humble handloom. Such products are typified by skirts for women more than any other. Cylindrical skirts Li women wear differ in length according to their tribes. The women of the Bendi Li tribe, who reside in the centre of the Li people’s dwelling area, wear the shortest ones. The farther a tribe reside away from the central tribe, the longer skirts its female members wear. The costumes and accessories Li women wear are varied in colour, design and shape and this helps to make their life in the mountainous area tasteful.

In the Meifu Li area in Dongfang County, women are often seen wearing a long cylindrical skirt of ankle length which is made by combined four or five pieces of cloth. One or two pieces are dyed in one of the oldest methods which was called ranjie in ancient times but is now referred to as "tie-dyeing". In this method, each end of roving used as the warp is bound tight to a wooden frame and then various patterns are formed by tying either blue or brown cotton yarn to the warp. After the warp with the knots is dyed, the knots are untied and then there appear the patterns. This step is followed by weaving the coloured woof to complete the fabric. Even today, Li women in some areas are still weaving cloth by using this dyeing method." top

There is a black and white photograph on page 289 of a woman's blouse and tube skirt with a necklace but without any attribution as to which Li sub-group they belong. (They would appear to be Ba-sa-dung Li). The colour plate section of the book has some very good quality photographs of Li groups and Li costume.  On pages 52-63 there are colour plates - with Japanese text only - of several different Li sub-groups (including Ba Sa Dung Li - see photo).  I hope to get the Japanese captions translated. On pages 54-55 there is a very interesting photos of a Li woman weaving on a back strap loom.  It is quite clear to see how she is meticulously adding in supplementary weft strands of different coloured wool into the narrow warp to create a very complex piece of weaving.  Pages 172-181 show colour photos of costume with simple English text but no differentiation of sub-group.  Page 228, fig 171 shows 'Li people, silver pendent (sic)'.  This little book is an excellent resource although frustrating in that it does not give any attribution as to different Li sub-groups - at least in the English text!

In "Ethnic Costumes and Clothing Decorations from China" there is a two page (pages 699, 700) description of the Li people:

"The Li nationality has a population of 817,000. Most of them live in the Wuzhi Mountain of Hainan Province and the rest are scattered in various places throughout Guangdong Province.

The island province of Hainan is permeated with poetic flavour and picturesque scenery, which are clearly reflected in the costumes and ornaments of the Li people.

As a whole, Li women’s costumes consist of a jacket and a tubular skirt. However, in different areas, patterns on their jackets and the ratio of length and width of their skirts are quite different. In the Wuzhi Mountain area of Qiongzhong County, the Li women wear round collared jackets open in the middle front with geometric patterns in the front and motifs of birds and flowers on the back. In Bait County, they wear pullover jackets with decorated patterns on both sides along the bottoms of the front and the back and around the sleeve cuffs. Pleatless and short (about 30 centimetres long and 40 centimetres wide), their tubular skirts are chiefly decorated with patterns of figures and animals. The tubular skirts of the Li women of the Detou branch are rather long and loose with the bottoms decorated with wide embroidered borders. In Ledong County, the patterns of figures and animals on the Sanxing women’s skirts are straightforward, simple and unsophisticated in style.

Li women, in most cases wear buns at the back of their heads and fixed with bone hairpins. They also wear embroidered scarfs inlaid with gold, silver and mica pieces, feather, beads, shells and other ornaments like tassels. With fine headgears on, they are keen on wearing earrings, bracelets, silver necklets and other ornaments.

Li men’s costumes are mostly made of homespun linen. They wear short collarless jackets open at the middle front. In the past, for their lower part, they just put on two pieces of short cloth instead of skirts or trousers. In Ledong County, the Miao Li men wore only a “fig leaf”. In Dongfang County, the Meifu Li men almost wear the same kind of jackets as the women. They also wear earrings. They wear buns above their foreheads (some at the back of their heads) and wrap their heads with pieces of red or black cloth.

The clothing decorative art of the Li nationality is emphatically characterized by exquisite patterns. Rich in imagination, the Li women can capture accurately the essence of birds, insects, animals, flowers, grass, stars and the moon as well as figures in very beautiful patterns. Ingeniously shaped and harmonious in colours, these patterns not only embody the simple and plain artistic taste of the Li people, but also have recorded the most popular fashion of the past. Hence, they are an important part of the Li people’s cultural traditions. " top

Textiles and the Tai Experience in Southeast Asia by Mattiebelle Gittinger and H Leedom Lefferts, Jr. in Gittinger's 'An Examination of Tai Textile Forms' pages 33-34 and 38 has black and white photos on Li weavings and informative text.  She says " Even today the Li of Hainan Island continue to use the foot-braced, back-tension looms with a continuous warp...'The Li are thought to have been on the island by the first century BC so this may well represent the oldest form of Tai loom.  The Li weave narrow bands patterned in warp ikat or supplementary weft or warp floats, and they join these into garments....The weft demension on a back-tension loom may be substantially greater than these narrow bands of the Li suggest.  The limitation is predicated on the reach of a weaver's arm as she inserts the weft element onto the opened shed.  Indeed, in Southeast Asia on islands such as Flores, dimensions of over one meter are known.  In these instances, however, the weaver does not perform intricate patterning techniques at the extremeties of the weft as is the case with the Li weaver.  By tradition Li women, using a quill, pick out the combination of warp yars to be raised for the insertion of each supplementary weft.  If the weft were too wide such detailed work would be extremely difficult."

A somewhat surprising source of information on Li textiles in Hainan Island, China, is Michael C Howard & Kim Be Howard's book "Textiles of the Daic Peoples of Vietnam".  The Howards, in discussing the Daic peoples refer, on page 29, to the Kadai:

"…there are ten languages spoken today which can be classified as Kadai: Gelao, Lati, Cun, Hlai, Jiamao, Laqua, Buyang, Yerong, Lingao, and Laha. Eight of the languages are divided into three sub-families (Lati-Kelao, Li-Laqua, and Bu-Rong)….. The Li-Laqua sub-family of Kadai languages contains four languages: Cun, Hlai, Jiamo and Laqua. The first three live on Hainan Island, while the fourth live in the vicinity of the China-Vietnam border. Cun is spoken by around 70,000 people on Hainan Island. The Cun live primarily in the western part of the island (e.g., around Dongfang) and are relatively acculturated into Han culture and considered part of the Han official nationality by the Chinese. Hlai speakers, who are commonly known as Li, are an officially recognized ethnic group of around one million people in China. They are found in the mountainous interior of Hainan Island. In early histories of southern China the Li are treated as one of the Yue. They appear to have been one of the Yue Min groups who settled first in Guangdong province and then migrated to Hainan Island some time prior to 200 BC. The Li originally settled on the eastern and southeastern coast of Hainan Island. When the Han Chinese occupied the coastal areas of the island in 110 BC, many Li fled into the interior. There are four Hlai dialects (Ha, Qi, Meifu and Bendi) spoken by sub-groups. There are around 52,000 Jiamao speakers living in the mountains of southern Hainan Island. While their language differs markedly from Hlai, they are included in the Li official nationality by the Chinese."

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Howard's discussion of the Li is the inclusion of photos - both black-and-white (pages 30-32)and colour plates (pages 211-214) - reprinted from a 1937 book in German by Hans Stübel (Stübel, Hans, Die Li-Stämme der Insel Hainan: Ein Beitrag zur Volkskunde Südchinas (Berlin: Klinkhardt & Biermann 1937) showing different Li sub-groups and their textiles.

On page 31 the Howards include a black-and-white photo, "2.3 Side view of a "Ba-sa-dung Li woman wearing a pull-over blouse and tubeskirt. [Stübel 1937: fig.23]" and on page 211 and top of page 212 there are several colour photos of clothing from the Li, Ba-sa-dung sub-group.  These are all similar to the Li clothing shown in the photos on the http://www.ethnoecho.com/ethnic/clothings/liset.html web site.  Both Olivier Tallec and I have such blouses and skirts in our collection. (The ethnoecho.com site incorrectly says "Li people is actually Miao living in Hainan Island" as they are from completely different linguistic families and ethnic groups.  There are, however, some Miao living in Hainan as photographed and referred to in the Leonard Clark 1938 National Geographic article mentioned below.) 

Also on page 31, figure 2.4 is a black-and-white photo of "Two Meifu (or "Me-fu") Li women wearing pull-over blouses and tubeskirts. (Stübel 1937: fig.57)."  Unfortunately the reproduction of the old black-and-white photo is rather indistinct but it does suggest the long tube skirt in Olivier’s photos of the one in his collection and in my own collection.  Regrettably there is no Meifu costume shown in the colour plates.  The description of Meifu above could also be interpreted in the light Olivier's photos.  See also http://www.tribaltrappings.com/search on Susan Stem's Tribal Trappings site where she has an excellent collection of Li tube skirts with several which would appear to come under this Meifu Li group. (At the Search page leave 'Category' and 'Status' boxes as 'All'. Put in 'Li' as search 'Keyword' and tick box 'Match whole word only' - then click 'Go' to see a reference gallery of Li textiles.)

On page 212, no 12. Li, Qi sub-group; detail of woman’s pull-over blouse. [Stübel 1937: fig.236] shows some anthropomorphic type of figures on the blouse which are somewhat similar (but not the same) as on the skirt (and detail) in Olivier’s photos. However, on page 213 18. Li, Qi sub-group; detail of a woman’s tubeskirt [Stübel 1937: fig.237] although this is Qi it is not particularly similar to the tubeskirt in Olivier’s photos. top

See an image of the title page of an (expensive) Japanese book on the Li people with information on the publisher. This has been recommended to me for the photos but I have not yet seen a copy.

The September 1938 edition of The National Geographic featured an article on the Li (or Big Knot Lois) of Hainan by the explorer Leonard Clark based on his exploration of central Hainan in the summer of 1937.  The title of the article is: "Among the Big Knot Lois of Hainan". The Lois (Li) group whose textiles are featured are the Ba-sa-dung - for a small group of photos from this article see Ba-sa-dung Li.  There are also photos in the original article of Ha Li showing the women wearing huge coils of brass in their ears which are so heavy that most of the time they wear them tied up on their head.  Their costumes seems to be a relatively simple indigo plain woven skirt and blouse.  A Ha Li man is shown wearing a large turban of several colours of cloth.  There is a reference to Meifu Li but the only photo is of the torsos of two men and both are bare chested.  There are a couple of photos of a Miao group which migrated to the island.

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this page last updated 29 March, 2005