The language spoken by the Li ethnic group in southernmost Chinese province of Hainan is now threatened with extinction due to the prevalence of putonghua, standard and official Chinese language, experts have warned.
No more than 500,000 among the one million Li people in Hainan can speak authentic Li language or dialect, according to experts with the Hainan Provincial Committee of China Association for Promoting Democracy, which is mainly composed of intellectuals working in the fields of culture, education, publication and science.
Li dialect, a language unique to the island province of Hainan, is also the most peculiar language in Zhuang-Dong branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. The latest studies show that it has a close relationship with languages of Malay in Malaysia, Tagalog in the Philippines, and Gaoshan dialect in another China's island province of Taiwan.
Research on the Li dialect in Hainan will be of great help to study the the immigration history of Hainan people in early times and their relationship with other ethnic groups in southeast Asian nations, experts said.
Experts with the Hainan Provincial Committee of China Association for Promoting Democracy suggested linguists fully study the Li language through recording the existing folk tales and songs of the Li ethnic group.
They also advise the local government to set up special task force and allocate special funds to preserve the endangered Li dialect.
The Li people, together with the Zhuang, Bouyei, Dong and Dai ethnic groups, can trace its origin back to the ancient "Yue" people who inhabited in the areas where are now south China's Guangdong Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
Yue people moved to the Hainan Island and became the Li ethnic group. However, the Li people's language is different from those spoken by other descendants of the Yue people who live in other parts of the country. A written form for the Li language was worked out in 1957. Many Li people also speak the Han language.
The Li people are mainly engaged in farming, but some also in handicrafts, animal raising and commerce for living. They live in the scenic sub-tropical zone, which is a good place for the growing of crops. Marine products also are abundant in their area.
The women are skilled in weaving and embroidery. They make beautiful scarves, bedclothes and other products decorated with bright-colored patterns of birds, animals, flowers and figures. The exquisite Li brocade enjoys a high reputation.
Singing is part of their life. Men and women, old and young, can compose and sing songs impromptu. The Li folk songs are melodious and expressive. Their musical instruments include mouth harps, nose flutes and multi-piped flutes.