Culture: Would you climb 49 branchless trees for love?

What does it take to marry in the Rwandan culture? I am not quite sure of all the factors….but at least I know that a man needs to have some cattle to present to the girl’s family as bride price.

This seems to be a small price to pay as you proclaim your love for your spouse as well as showcasing to her family that you are ready and capable to take care of her.

Now, imagine you have to climb 49 long, slim, branchless trees in order to get a wife to marry! It sounds funny, doesn’t it? This is what the cultural traditions of the Li ethnic minority in China dictate. The Li people are a small ethnic group that constitutes only about 1.2 million of the vast Chinese population which stands at about 1.4 billion people.

China has up to 56 ethnicities, of which an overwhelming majority of up to 98 per cent belong to the Han ethnicity. The remaining 55 ethnicities are minorities accounting for only about 28 million people.

A week or so ago, I managed to get time off my busy academic schedule in Beijing, and went all the way to the southern part of China, to Hainan, an island in the Pacific Ocean where the Li ethnic minority of China live.

The beautiful island, coined “the Oriental Hawaii” by the Chinese people, boasts of good tropical weather, a beautiful coastline, a number of beautiful facilities like hotels and nice beaches.

My encounter with the Li people happened on the third and fourth day of our visit, when we went (along with other African journalists) to two of their villages.

Though not so different from other Chinese physically, these people have a number of cultural practices that make them differ in a number of ways. For instance, if all you know in Chinese is the “Ni hao,” (greetings), you may need to learn something new here in order to greet. Here they say, “Bolo,” a phrase that still means the same thing: “Hello”

At Binglanggu, the betel nut village:

This is not where we visited first but it is where I want to start my narrative.

A small village made up of about 1300 residents, Bingangglu is about 30 minutes drive from Sanya, the main city of the Hainan island.

It is dubbed the betel nut village because many of the many betel nut trees, a tall coastal tree popular for its nuts that are a delicacy throughout a number of Asian countries.

It is here that we leave our tourist cars and do a number of walks around the place after which we are called for a cultural performance by the Li people.

The stage is already set, and a lot is taking place in the play. But since it is in the local dialect, I am not able to understand a lot, and so I have to wait for our tour guide to explain later.

 One of the things she explains after the play is the heavy price one needed to pay in their ancient culture when it came to getting a wife.

 “You had to climb 49 betel nut trees,” she says in a Chinese accent while pointing at one of the so many slim-long, branchless trees around us.

The guys with me in the visiting African tourist group start to laugh at the weird bride price, little do they know that more is yet to come.

The unusual courtship and wedding

The courtship and wedding of the Li people are unusual. In accordance to Li custom, girls will move out of their parents’ house when they reach the age of sixteen, and live alone in a boudoir (house) not far from their parents.

Most boudoirs are thatched huts with a big bed in it. Girls start finding housemates for themselves after moving in the boudoirs!!

Young men are free to go into the boudoirs to chat and play with the girls. If the girl likes the young man, she will ask him to stay for the night in the boudoir. On the other hand, if she does not like him, she will ask him to leave.

Once the free love relationship is consummated in the boudoir, the young man’s parents will go to the girl’s home to make the proposal formally. They often take with them some clothes and betel that girls like (Betel is the most important gift for making the proposal.)

The girl’s family may however show their dissatisfaction if the betel is little. It is joyous and festive when the wedding is formally held. The bridesmaid and the best man sing love songs and the whole village feast on pork and mutton.


The Li people believe in polytheism. They worship their ancestors and nature and to them, “everything has a spirit”. The Lis who live near the Han people are influenced by Taoism. Christianity was once introduced to certain regions where the Lis live.


Li women wear buttonless blouses and tight-fitting long skirts. Women in some places wear pullovers. They coil their hair at the back and pin it with bone hairpins and wear embroidered kerchiefs. They wear earrings, necklace, and bracelets.

Some still tattoo their body, usually on face, the back of hands and ankle. Women who were born after 1940s no longer tattoo their body. The attires for men are nothing special. They wear collarless jackets.

The Li people are good at singing and dancing, and have a rich heritage of oral literature that covers many folktales and ballads. The native musical instruments are mouth bow (mouth chord), a vertical bamboo flute blown through the nose, and “Bai” (Paixiao, a vertical musical instrument made of bamboo), and so on.

Burial custom

Death is announced by the firing of guns! And the body is put into a coffin hewed out of a single log and is then buried in the village cemetery.


The staple food for the Li people is rice. Sometimes they eat some other grains. “Leigong Root” is a kind of edible wild herbs. It is cooked with little fish and shrimp caught in the river or with meat and bone, making it quite delicious relish.

“Leigong Root” can also be used as herb that can cure inflammation and detoxify.

It is also the custom of the Li minority to eat rats and mice. Mountain mouse, field mouse, house mouse and squirrels...


They speak Li; however, due to constant contact with the Han majority, the Li people also use Mandarin (official language of the Chinese) and Chinese characters.


The Li do not do farm work on the day of offering sacrifices in three consecutive years after one of their family members passes away.


White chicken is not to be served on the day that a man proposes. It is believed that doing otherwise makes the couple quarrel frequently after marriage.


During mourning, the family members of the deceased don’t wear their clothes inside and don’t bath for 3 days.

They are also not allowed to sing, play music, beat gongs and drums, explore firecrackers or do farm work.

Rice is inhibited in meals served during the mourning period. Meat, wine and other grains are some of the food that constitutes the meals. The funeral procession is not held at noon because it is believed that holding a funeral procession at noon causes calamity.

Sleeping position

Sleeping while facing the door is prohibited because that is done when moving out a dead person from the house. If a guest violates the taboos, the host is not happy, because that is a signal that something bad is going to happen.

It is thought that the Li have inhabited Hainan for over 3000 years, and they were believed to be the earliest settlers of Hainan. Thirty-nine other minority groups live on Hainan Island.


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