Identity Although the various Li groups on Hainan Island acknowledge a common historical kinship, "they are divided into several groups, distinguishable by their different dialects [and costumes]." The name Li means "black" or "dark brown"; it can also mean "numerous."
History The ancestors of the Li are believed to have migrated to Hainan Island from the Mainland approximately 3,000 years ago. The state of Li is mentioned at the beginning of the tenth book of the Chinese Book of History. The state was conquered by the Chief of the West in AD 1123. Historically the Chinese have viewed Hainan as a backward, undesirable place. When Li Deyu - a Chinese prime minister during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907) - was exiled to Hainan, he described his new home as "the gate to hell."
Customs Until recently the Bendi Li relied on hunting and fishing for their survival. One visitor to Hainan Island noted, "The natives do not use fish hooks, but dam the numerous interior rivers and pour in root poison which stupefies the fish, making them easy to spear."
Religion The Bendi Li are mostly polytheists and animists, worshiping a multiplicity of gods and spirits. Before the antireligion purges of the Cultural Revolution, most Li villages had their own shaman who acted as a medium between the community and the spirit world.
Christianity There is no known Christian presence among the Bendi Li. Of the more than one million Li on Hainan Island, only 1,000 believe in Jesus Christ. The majority have never heard the gospel before. Historically, most evangelism conducted on Hainan Island has been aimed at the Hainanese Chinese.
A 1987 linguistic survey listed 44,000 speakers of the Bendi Li language. The Bendi language further divides into the Baisha dialect (36,000 speakers) and the Yuanmen dialect (8,000 speakers). The Bendi Li are one of five distinct Li tribes located on southern China's tropical Hainan Island. The Bendi inhabit the central part of the island, including the eastern half of Baisha County and northward to Yinggeling. (Source: Operation China, 2000)