The Gate of Hell and the Tail of the Dragon were former nicknames of Hainan due to its blazing temperatures and geographic isolation at the southernmost end of the Chinese empire. Nowadays, Hainan, which translates to “South of the Sea,” has been given a more appealing nick-name as the “Hawaii of China” as it has gradually become a tourist destination of beaches, fun and sun.
It wasn’t until the Song Dynasty (980 – 1279) that waves of ethnic Han Chinese began moving to the island. In the 16th and 17th centuries, immigration continued among Chinese from Guangdong and Fujian provinces, and during the Ming Dynasty Hainan was actually incorporated into Guangdong Province.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Hainan was a Marxist hotbed when sympathizers from the crackdown on leftists in Shanghai fled south. From 1939 – 1945, under the Japanese occupation of Hainan, local Li and Han rebels fought together against the foreign invaders, but their resistance was quickly matched by the Japanese, who carpet bombed the island and unleashed a major offensive which, according to some estimates, killed nearly half of the adult male population.
It wasn’t until 1984 that Hainan separated from Guangdong and became its own province, being designated as a Special Economic Zone only four years later. Growth continued for the next decades, but Hainan really began to set itself apart when tourists began flocking to the island’s pristine beaches. Currently, Hainan is not only a hot domestic tourist destination; it’s an international one with tourists from Vladivostok to Venezuela.
The original indigenous inhabitants of Hainan are from the Li and Miao ethnicities, even though Han Chinese make up the majority today. There are also pockets of Zhuang and Limgao (Ong-Be) peoples. In addition to Mandarin, the majority of Hainanese speak a dialect of Mandarin known as Minnan (Mǐnnán Yǔ; 闽南语), more colloquially known as Hainanese. Cantonese is still widely spoken, however, and among the Miao a Hmong-Mien language is common, as well as a Tai-Kadai dialect among the Zhuang and the Limgao populations.