Hainan Part 2: Eastern Hainan - The Vicious Empress And Women Soldiers

Eastern Hainan: The Vicious Empress And Women Soldiers

We visited neighbouring places long associated with our family. We got on a bus through the eastern coastal highway, past coconut groves and many prawn farms. Fresh water has become scarce in recent years and local farmers have been switching to commercial prawn farming, which is highly profitable given the increased demand for prawns from a new middle class. However prawn farming comes with a price – the destruction of mangroves and the diverse wildlife that live there.

Hainan has long been proclaimed by the Chinese Government of a treasure trove of biodiversity. Numerous species of fauna and flora live in the coastal mangroves and inland tropical rainforests. Yet in the rush towards modernization, only lip service is paid to conservation. It has been estimated by some sources that as much as 80% of the coral reefs and 80% of the tropical rainforests were lost in the past three decades. These have led to the destruction of fishing grounds and soil erosion. Many endangered animals are hunted for restaurant tables. All this in a province that proclaims itself as an Eco-province.

We dropped by Qionghai City[1], another county where many have overseas Chinese family connections. My maternal grandfather was born here in the last years of the 19th century, before he emigrated to Singapore. I hadn’t done much research about the origins of Mum’s family. After all, her surname, Li (nothing to do with the Li indigenous people of Hainan), is the most populous in the world, with more than 100 million members.

What I have found so far indicated six major migrations of Li to Hainan over a thousand year period, the first of whom was Li Xiaoyi[2], a Tang Dynasty general of royal blood, who, together with many members of the nobility and civil service, was accused of plotting rebellion when they disagreed with Empress Dowager Wu Zetian[3]. He was initially sentenced to death but subsequently commuted to internal exile in Hainan in 684 A.D. with his family.

Li Xiaoyi was luckier than another official, Su Yuan[4], who in 655 A.D. opposed Emperor Gaozhong[5]’s plan to divorce his wife and made beautiful and ever-scheming Lady Wu empress. Wu killed her baby daughter and then blamed the empress. The Emperor believed Wu, divorced his wife and made Wu empress. Su was then accused of planning rebellion and exiled to Hainan.

A year later, unable to forgive Su even though he was in exile, Empress Wu accused Su of further plots, sentenced him to death and sent an imperial executioner to remote Hainan. In Hainan, the executioner found that Su had by then died in exile, but dug out his coffin and desecrate his tomb. Empress Wu confiscated all of the properties of the Su clan and condemned his family members to exile in Guangzhou as slaves.

Empress Wu soon became the real power behind the throne, and murdered and exiled the Emperor’s children and loyal officials. She gained even greater power after Emperor Gaozhong died in 683 A.D. and seven years later, she officially became the first and only female emperor (instead of mere empress consort) in Chinese history.

She was one of the most remarkable women in Chinese history – she expanded the borders and developed the economy. But she was also a brutal tyrant and a cunning, Machiavellian. She killed her daughter to gain power, and then murdered two sons and a grandson so as to officially become China’s ruler. Thousands of officials were executed or exiled for real or imaginary plots. Eventually, she trusted no one but a few male lovers, who were executed when Wu was overthrown at the age of 82, by one of her sons in a coup d’etat in 705 A.D., and died a year later.

From bustling Qionghai City, we switched to another bus to Boao[6], a small town at the mouth of Wanquan River[7] that flows to the Pacific Ocean. Once a sleepy fishing village whose only minor claim to fame was due to an exiled Mongol prince’s love for the Wanquan River and a beautiful lady who lived on its banks, Boao suddenly gained prominence in 2001 when it was selected to be the host of the annual Forum for Asia[8], a gathering of Asian political and economic leaders modeled after the World Economic Forum at Davos.

Within a few years, several five star hotels and conference centres were built in Boao. Package tourists in pseudo-Hawaiian Aloha-style shirts on the Sanya coast are now brought here where they get onto a cruise on the Wanquan River to a sand bar which the Chinese tourism propaganda proclaim as the world’s narrowest. It is one thing to rationally identify something as the world’s largest country or tallest mountain, and quite something impossible to identify the smallest and narrowest. I have seen more than my fair share of sandbars round the world to know a silly claim. But then this is China, and Chinese tourist propaganda, like their American equivalent, is full of such misrepresentations.


Qionghai was where communism began in Hainan, and where the Red Women’s Detachment[9] achieved fame. This was a guerrilla company made up of women who fought bravely against the Kuomintang regime in the 1930’s.

They were immortalized in what have become a classic Chinese communist revolutionary ballet movie (1961) called “The Red Women’s Detachment”. Here’s a description of it from the http://www.morningsun.org:

“On tropical Hainan Island, a group of courageous women pursue the communist battle against the Nationalists. Wu Qionghua[10] joins the group and becomes a proud leader after having suffered pain, humiliation and loss. The evil landlord Nan Batian[11] had killed her father and taken Wu as his slave. She tried to escape but was always captured and punished. She was eventually freed by Hong Changqing[12], a communist agent disguised as a rich overseas Chinese arms dealer.

Wu joins the female detachment of the Red Army led by Hong. However, obsessed by her desire to seek revenge on Nan Batian, she is injured and endangers her comrades. Through correct communist education she is able to transform her personal hatred into class solidarity. After Hong is burnt to death by Nan Batian, Wu leads her women’s detachment in a successful offensive against the tyrant. He is captured, paraded through the streets and executed. Wu now takes over Hong’s command and continues the battle.”

The movie, set in an exotic tropical island involving many beautiful actresses and colourful tribes, won immediate popular acclaim and numerous awards in China, including the 1962 Baihua Prize, which was the Oscar of Chinese movies. However, ballet was soon denounced as bourgeoisie and counter-revolutionary – contradictory it may be - as the Cultural Revolution began in 1965. The Red Guards stormed the theatre and bullied the artists. A brief respite came when Mao’s wife Jiang Qing[13], the most vicious of the infamous Gang of Four, showed interest in the performances, and transformed it into her personal vehicle for ultra leftist propaganda.

Studies have shown that 45% of the artists involved in the movie suffered some form of persecution and 15% were denounced as counter-revolutionary, which came with terrible consequences for the individuals and their families. The dashing actor[14] who acted as Hong, however, took advantage of the times to persecute other artists, was Jiang Qing’s favourite. He was made Vice-Minister of Culture. However, with the fall of Jiang Qing after Mao’s death, he was sentenced to 17 years in prison.

Most tragically, it weren’t just the artists in the movie who had suffered. The original members of the Red Women’s Detachment were caught up in the chaos that overcome China during the Mao era. Of the five detachment leaders who survived the battles with Kuomintang, Japanese invaders killed one during WWII, two became widowed when their husbands were killed by the Communists after the Revolution for being Kuomintang-linked. These two, as well as one other lady, were persecuted and physically tortured during the Cultural Revolution. No wonder they say revolutions tend to devour their own children.


The story of Moh, a neighbour, is similar to so many other personal tragedies suffered by the Chinese people during the past decades of political chaos and civil conflict that had plagued China.

Moh’s father was a schoolteacher when the Communists took over Hainan in 1950. A group of Red Guards entered the village where they, together with some “converted revolutionaries” within the village, began their campaign against “oppressive feudal landlords”. In this part of China where many have relatives abroad, the newly arrived revolutionaries from the interior of China regarded many villagers as potential spies of “foreign imperialist powers”. The “Nanyang[15] wives”, wives of the local men who were working in Southeast Asia, were sometimes bullied and harassed by these Red Guards. Some of these Red Guards even showered unwelcome amorous attention on these poor women.

It was as a result of one of these incidents that Moh’s father reprimanded the Red Guards for their behaviour in public, which turned him the public enemy of the new powers. He was soon accused of being a spy and a supporter of the old feudal regime. He was put on a kangaroo trial and humiliated in public. The pressure became too much to bear, and one day, he committed suicide.

The then teenage Moh was suddenly orphaned, and my grandmother, a “Nanyang wife” herself, took Moh into the household, treating him as though he was her son. This was why our families have always been close. After Uncle Shan left the village to work elsewhere, Moh has continued to look after our family home and other properties. But it was after Dad had told me this story that I could appreciate why elderly Moh and his sons have been so helpful and accommodating to our every requests during our visit to Taijia.

We walked through the village’s prawn farms and narrow country lanes. Prawn faremers busy piling their catch onto a refrigerated truck. Young men were playing volleyball, Hainan’s favourite sport, in the small court by the local shop. Noise of fire-crackers from some houses at the far end of the village. “huan-ke visiting from America and Denmark,” explained the villagers.

These friendly people, many of whom were neighbours and relatives of the family for centuries, greeted us warmly wherever we went. It was a strange feeling realizing that these peasants were somewhat related to my family. It was equally bewildering as I wondered which of the older folks here were those Red Guards who had wrecked the lives of fellow villagers more than four decades ago. But such was the reality of people who had lived through traumatic years that shaped China in the 20th century.


We got onto an express bus to Haikou, capital of Hainan. This is a city of 800,000 people, a lower mid-size city by Chinese standards. Haikou is a city of skyscrapers, but many of which are empty or never completed. Hainan was one of the first places in China to be opened for foreign investments when the country took its cautious first steps in economic reforms in the 1980s. The island was made a separate province and its government given considerable autonomy in economic and investment policies, as well as the right to freely import goods and equipment.

Instead of developing the manufacturing capabilities of the island, the provincial leaders of Hainan turned the island into a corruption racket. US$1 billion of China’s foreign currency reserves, originally meant for the import of capital investment, were wasted to import cars and electrical appliances duty-free. Those were the days before China’s transformation into the world’s manufacturing hub and every official in China craved for foreign-made cars, washing machines, radios, televisions and all the comforts of life so readily available to ordinary people elsewhere.

Hainan resold the cars and electrical appliances to the Mainland which were then banned from direct imports – 89,000 cars were imported by Hainan in 1984, more than the whole country’s purchase of cars in one year. The local officials then pocketed the ridiculous profits made from such transactions. Haikou boomed as money flowed in, and speculative land deals that were struck led to the mushrooming of skyscrapers.

The scam was discovered and officials punished. Haikou’s fortunes sank and have never fully recovered. Economic development has since stagnated. Whilst foreign investors have flogged to other parts of China, Hainan has remained a backwater despite being a coastal province with a huge Diaspora abroad. Haikou’s forest of skyscrapers has remained largely uncompleted, and is today symbol of failures and excesses of China’s early muddled exploration into capitalism.

There is some hope. A new governor was appointed in 2004. Governor Wei Liucheng[16] was previously the president of China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC)[17], one of China’s giant petroleum companies. Hainan is a key base of China’s potentially lucrative offshore oil reserves. Governor Wei might well be the man needed to develop this strategic resource critical to energy-hungry China. He is also a well-connected person internationally and perhaps one who could persuade international investors to Hainan. A robust petrochemical industry may help address the lack of diversity of Hainan’s economy, which is still largely dependent on agriculture, despite the higher profile of tourism. There is some manufacturing, but development in that area is hampered by the lack of a large population base and expertise.

Tourism is one of Hainan’s key industries. More than 14 million tourists visited Hainan in 2004, of whom 309,000 are from abroad. The rest were domestic tourists from the north of China. Even then, most tourists spend their time on the southern coast around Sanya, whilst the Hainanese Diaspora concentrate around the eastern Hainan, in the counties of Wenchang and Qionghai.

As Chinese tourists now begin to travel abroad, they may find the exotic, warmer beaches in Thailand and Bali more attractive. Hainan will probably continue to attract those domestic tourists who are intimidated by traveling abroad, or have only just begun to travel. Given there are 1.3 billion people in China, there will always be people who travel for the first time and looking for a coastal resort where people speak the same language. Even then, Hainan’s challenge is to continue to retain its uniqueness to capture the high value-added tourists.


Wugongci[18], Shrine of Five Officials, is an interesting place to study how Hainanese people view themselves. This huge complex of memorial temples in Haikou was first constructed in the 19th century when China came under the threat of being split by the Great European powers. Indeed, the French had shown great interest in possibly adding Hainan to its Indochinese possessions. In 1872, the Treaty of Tientsin[19] signed as a result of the Second Opium War in which British forces defeated China, Haikou was made a treaty port, i.e., forcibly opened to international trade and missionary activities. Local authorities had probably built Wugongci to reinforce the idea of Hainan as a Chinese territory.

The core building in Wugongci commemorates five officials who were exiled to Hainan, while other surrounding buildings commemorates other Chinese historical figures such as Su Dongpo[20] and Fupo Generals[21], all of whom for some reason or other landed up in Hainan. It emphasizes that Hainan as a key part of mainstream Chinese history.

It was interesting that the five officials stayed in Hainan for between six days and ten years about a thousand or more years ago. Whilst it is certainly undeniable that Hainan was then seen as a tropical hell, it is debatable whether the relatively short stay of some of these officials was adequate to signify anything at all. One of them, Li Deyu, who was a Tang Dynasty Prime Minister, was exiled after losing a palace power struggle, although the most immediate cause of his exile was related to his opposition against allowing commoners to participate in the imperial civil service examinations – what is more reactionary than this? Perhaps, it was all about “yuan fen[22]”, which is a Chinese concept that implies a shared fate or destiny that links different people together.

Su Dongpo was one of China’s greatest poets and a patriotic official who was exiled to Danzhou[23], western Hainan in 1096 A.D, where according to some cynical records he spent time counting passersby and eating three hundred lychees a day. Here in this shrine, there are frescoes devoted to how Su taught half naked Li tribal people Chinese agricultural techniques, medicine, wine-making and Chinese language. Very much of a Su-brought-civilisation-to-the-native theme. There’s also a fresco on Su promoting racial harmony between Li and Han Chinese. This is all so CCP! Eternal friendship between the Happy Natives and their Big Brother Han who bring civilization to the land!

The Fupo generals refer to two Han Dynasty generals who conquered Hainan 2000 years ago. There are temples and sites all over Hainan dedicated to these two generals who came here on the way to crush a short-lived rebellion by the Trung Sisters of Vietnam[24] to liberate the country from Chinese rule. The Trung Sisters are martyred heroines of the Vietnamese people today. The sisters were sources of inspiration of subsequent Vietnamese battles against the Chinese, French and American invaders, and are worshipped as gods by many Vietnamese as well. The Fupo generals, whose forces crushed the Trung sisters and also defeated the local Li tribes, are seen as pioneers by the Han-Hainanese of today and they have become gods to the many who pray to them for health, fortune and prosperity. History is written by the victors.

[1] 琼海市
[2] 李孝逸
[3] 武则天
[4] 韩瑗
[5] 唐高宗
[6] 博鳌
[7] 万泉河
[8] 博鳌亚洲论坛
[9] 红色娘子军
[10] 吴琼花
[11] 南霸天
[12] 洪常青
[13] 江青
[14] 刘庆棠
[15] 南洋
[24]交趾 (今越南) 之征氏姐妹: 征侧、征贰