Li Bone Hairpins: An Inch-wide Totem

By / HICN / Updated: 22:41,17-September-2021

Bone hairpins are artistically carved handicrafts made from cow or deer bones. Of all the items which the Li people made from bone (including combs, forks, and horns), these feature the most delicate artwork. Since ancient times, the bone hairpin was used by Li women to fix their hairstyles in place. This fantastic artwork has been passed down throughout the ages and,  in 2005, was included as one the earliest items to be listed as a Hainan Provincial Intangible Culture Heritage item.


Traditionally, the bone hairpin is regarded as a token of love by the Li men, and they would make bone hairpins by themselves as a gift to propose a marriage to their beloved one.


Under the warm light of the setting sun, 50-year-old Fu Mingzhuang, a Li Bone Hairpin artisan in Hainan’s Baisha Li Ethnicity Autonomous County, held out one of his treasured bone hairpins and carefully put it in his wife's hair. The white of the almost jade-fine bone hairpin complements her black hair, and the red ornaments on the hairpin pour down like a string of acacia beans.


20 years ago, Fu Mingzhuang turned to learn bone carving from the then 80-year-old artisan Fu Yaguo. Already too old to show him the process step by step, he provided oral instruction that left Fu Mingzhuang still needing to figure out certain techniques on his own.

At the first stage, it is very critical to select proper raw materials. Generally, the 30cm long thigh bone of a cow is used as it is not easy to break it during the carving process.

Then, the remnants of meat, fat, and gristle should be removed, and it should be repeatedly rinsed with water. To remove any lingering scents or odors boiled in a large pot over a fragrant pine bough fire for about 6 hours.


After scooping the bone out, it is dried for 3 to 4 days; cut into 3-3.5cm wide, 10cm long pieces with a machete or hacksaw; and polished white and smooth with sandstone or sandpaper.

Next comes the most critical step - carving. Using a sharp carving knife or chisel, a human head and various patterns are carved. The key to success is having a vivid face carving. The 2cm long face with its lifelike expression usually takes half a day.

After carving, artisans will use the liquid paste of the leaves of a plant called "ben fa" in Li language to dye the hairpin. This results in beautiful  black and white patterns in the elegant hairpin.


Having been engaged in bone hairpin carving for over 20 years, Fu Mingzhuang is deeply committed to his craft.

Due to the limited craft inheritance between fathers and sons, and the durable characteristics of bone hairpins, fewer and fewer youngsters are willing to learn the craft from senior artisans. At present, there are no provincial-level masters for the Li bone tool craftmanship, and only three artisans in Baisha are considered county level masters.

"The bone hairpin is a record of our ethnic totem and the code of our traditional culture carved into a hair ornament," Fu Mingzhuang, stroking the bone hairpin in his hand, said that the Li people lived a slash-and-burn life and carved what they saw into animal bones. Images such as mountains, rivers, good rice paddies and exotic beasts were common. "This is our yearning for a better life and a sentimental remembrance of our ancestors," said Fu.


Wide at the top and narrow at the bottom, the square and flat bone hairpin is like a small sword. Today, as the inheritor of this ancient art, Fu Mingzhuang is helping protect his people's cultural skills from going extinct.



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