Hainan Diary: The Li Boat-shaped houses of Baicha Village

By Nicki Johnson / hicn.cn / Updated: 17:33,28-May-2021

Baicha Village, located in Dongfang, Hainan, is known as the “last spiritual homeland” of the island’s native Li people. Surrounded by lushly forested hills, the 81 traditional houses stand scattered here and there, resembling a fleet of wooden boats flipped upside-down. According to legend, long ago, the ancestors of the Li people crossed the ocean to come to the island of Hainan. Having nowhere to shelter, they flipped their boats over and made them into houses. In order to honor the memory of their forebears, later generations of Li also built their houses to resemble upside-down boats, creating the distinctive shapes of their traditional dwellings.

Boat-shaped house (Photo - Zhong Yu)

On May 2, Hainan Diary visited Dongfang. Famed authors Ye Zhaoyan and Xu Zechen, along with noted scholar Liu Daxian went to Baicha Village to enter into close dialog with the history of the Li.

Interior of boat-shaped house (Photo - Zhong Yu)

Both ends of the traditional boat-shaped houses are open, and the interior is floored with smooth, hard-packed clay.

Boat-shaped houses (Photo - Zhong Yu)

The traditional cookstoves found in these houses are called “three stone stoves”. The shelf above the stove provides a convenient place to store pots, jars, and needed ingredients, and the stove also keeps the home snug, dry, and warm. The smoke from the stove keeps insects away from the wood of the house’s frame. Near Baisha Village, there are also quite a few other houses that look fairly similar to the traditional boat-shaped homes, as well as barns with peaked roofs. These barns are built with a stone base, and a frame made of horizontally-placed logs. The round roof-beam supports a bamboo and wood roof covered with dried grass. The walls of these barns are covered inside and out with a layer of mud, which protects them from fire, rain, dampness, and vermin.

Boat-shaped house (Photo - Zhong Yu)  

Boat-shaped houses (Photo - Zhong Yu)

As Ye Zhaoyan, Xu Zechen, and Liu Daxian toured the boat-shaped houses, they also discussed the palm trees growing alongside. They wanted to know what the holes in the palm tree trunks were for. Liu Daxian thought they were for climbing the trunks, while Ye Zhaoyan and Xu Zechen figured that the locals, already expert at climbing palm trees, didn’t need to use any holes to climb up, and that the holes must have another purpose.

Ye Zhaoyan and Liu Daxian visit a boat-shaped house. (Photo - Zhong Yu)

The unusual appearance of the traditional boat-shaped homes made a deep impression on Xu Zechen. He plans to do more research into the construction methods used to create them, as well as their unique functions. He also plans to learn more about the traditional Li lifestyle to more fully understand the role that the boat-shaped houses play in their culture.

Famed authors Ye Zhaoyan and Xu Zechen, along with noted scholar Liu Daxian discussing the holes in the palm tree trunks.  (Photo - Zhong Yu)

Famed author Ye Zhaoyan visiting a boat-shaped house. (Photo - Zhong Yu)

An Oriental Garden Lizard catches the attention of famed author Xu Zechen. (Photo - Zhong Yu)

Famed author Liu Daxian visits Baicha Village. (Photo - Zhong Yu)

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