Hainan culture expresses the drama and beauty of life
From Qiong opera to Li embroidery, the heritage of the southernmost province of China is an eclectic mix that has evolved into something unique
Hainan has a long and varied history, with waves of migrants landing on the island from the mainland, since the Han dynasty. The local Li people have endured, and so has their way of life. Much of what we see today represented as “Hainan culture” is an eclectic mix of traditional Li and Han imperial cultures, with a dash of foreign influence to go along with today’s more modern society.
One of the most iconic elements of Hainan culture is Qiong opera, based in Haikou. The art is a dramatic microcosm of the mixture that makes up Hainan society. It has absorbed many different operatic forms and themes, and has emerged as a quintessential Hainanese expression in the local dialect. There are five roles in Qiong opera – “male”, “female”, “the painted face”, “the ancient one” and “the clown” – each contributing their part to the many enduring plays in the Qiong canon, including Inscribe a Poem on a Red Leaf, Zhang Wenxiu, Searching the Institute, and Gold Hairpin in the Dog’s Mouth.
There are two other important elements of Hainan culture in Haikou. First, the traditional Li embroidery and knitting techniques are recognised by Unesco as important intangible heritage in need of protection. Then there are the eight basic instruments of traditional Hainanese Han musical tradition.
Li embroidery is famous throughout China and is gaining popularity overseas. Its intricate techniques take years to master. The highest form of the Li brocade art is the “dragon quilt”, a colourful, thick, beautiful piece that was a given in tribute to the emperor in imperial times.
Hainanese traditional music is an offshoot of Chinese traditional music from the mainland, with a slightly different take on the instruments. It also has its own repertoire of ballads and folk tales – some adapted from old traditionals, and others created locally.
Research suggests the musical traditional dates at least back to the Tang dynasty, and most likely further than that, into the Han dynasty, making the Hainan Eight Tones musical tradition one the oldest in China. The instruments are the yehu, trichord, surna horn, pipe, flute, gong, drum and cymbals. Performances can still be heard in opera houses and theatres in Haikou and elsewhere around Hainan.