PRESERVATION OF THE THATCH-ROOFED HOUSES OF THE HAINAN LI PEOPLE

In the early 1980s, How Man visited Hainan Island twice, once for the National Geographic. Although he explored all counties and cities of the island, the main focus was on the indigenous Li minority. Howman made some pioneering raw film footage of the Li people during that 1984 trip.

In 2007, CERS revisited the island mainly to look at the situation of the Li people after over 25 years. Today the Li comprises about 1.2 million of the population in Hainan. In western Hainan, inside the confines of the Bawangling Mountain Range, the CERS team travelled to the most remote village in Wangxia, a place that How Man had visited in 1984. A road had recently been opened all the way beyond Wangxia to the most remote Li village - Hongshui.

By the time CERS arrived, all that remained of the Li villages were newly constructed brick or cement houses with tin roofs, the result of a village reconstruction program implemented by the Hainan government. The traditional adobe-walled thatch-roofed houses of the Li people had all but disappeared. It seemed that one of the important cultural signatures of the Li people had been lost forever.

At Hongshui Village, however, to the utmost surprise of the team, the entire traditional village with seventy families was intact. This was due to the remoteness of the area and the fact that no road had provided access until only a few years before, so the government policy had been difficult to implement. “As we admired the old village and affiliated traditional lifestyle, we learned that the village was scheduled for demolition within a couple of weeks. In its place would rise a new village of brick and cement houses, at times not unlike a refugee camp, as we had seen in other nearby villages.”

CERS decided to quickly step in to help and pleaded with the government to preserve this last vestige of Li village culture. Through coordinated intervention by the local government, CERS was able to stall the destruction and proposed instead that the new village should be constructed next to the old village, rather than in its place. CERS was able to acquire from the local villagers 20 adjacent traditional houses within one section of the village.

The next few years saw many work trips, some lasting months, during which time CERS management and support staff had to work continuously. The result was that 15 of the 20 houses were restored. Because of strict control of hill fires, thatch has become difficult to come by, and special efforts had to be made. Some houses had to be modified in order to save them from continuous deterioration or high maintenance cost.

One traditional house became classroom and library, holding a good selection of academic and research books on the Li people and on local natural history. Other houses became kitchen and dining room, with multiple buildings to be used for lodging, complete with en-suite bathrooms.

In 2012, CERS began using the newly renovated old Hongshui Village as an education site for students, both from universities and high schools. Several campaigns were organized to collect traditional Li artifacts and objects of everyday use. These were systematically cleaned, inventoried, registered and put on display, using two of the larger houses as exhibit spaces. This has become one of the most authentic local museums of the culture of the Li people.

Many journalists have visited the site, including local, national and international writers, and several stories on this project have been published, including one in the Wall Street Journal. A few documentary films have also been made, including one film by students from Singapore, and an animated film produced by high school students from Hong Kong.

Today, work continues to complete restoration of the remaining thatch-roofed houses. In the not too distant future, it is our hope that the Li community themselves will become the guardians and custodians of their own cultural identity.