For the Li ethnic group in south China's Hainan Province, love songs accompanied by the sound of a flute are the leading way into a woman's heart.


"She was the most beautiful girl in the village," said Ji Jinguang, a 66-year-old resident of Baoting County who wooed his wife Chen Xiuping with his skillful singing and flute-playing.


"He was handsome and could play touching tunes on the flute," said Chen, 67.


The courtship rituals of the Li people traditionally begin with young men and women singing to each other, as Ji and Chen did many years ago.


Chen said Li women are drawn to men who can climb trees and play music with ease, while Li men are attracted to women who demonstrate skills in embroidery and other handicrafts.


Ji earned Chen's love by composing a new melody for her, playing the song on his flute to herald his arrival before reaching the outskirts of her village.


She said her heart would flutter at hearing the tune, adding that she would sing to let him know he was expected.


Unlike other Chinese, who practiced arranged marriage for centuries, the Li people have always advocated marrying for love.


As the aboriginal people of Hainan, the Li have a history of more than 3,000 years and a population exceeding 1.2 million. At the age of 14 or 15, teenagers must move out of their parents' single-room thatched cottages and live by themselves.


Boys have to build their own homes, while girls' cottages, or "longgui," are built by their parents. The cottages are usually built in quieter parts of the village, providing privacy for courting couples.


After finishing work for the day, young men cross mountains and rivers as the sun sets to visit women in other villages and court them with music.


"I was well known and very popular with the girls," Ji said. He is not only an excellent flutist, but a talented maker of instruments.


"But I had only one girlfriend. She became my wife," he said, glancing at Chen, his love for five decades.


"I met her when I was 15. She was a year older than me," he said. The pair married when Ji turned 20 and went on to have six children.


The musical courtship style of the Li is somewhat complicated. If a young man wants to woo a girl, he must sing a song by her window. If she's interested, she will sing a song in return before opening her door. But if she is not interested, she will sing a song indicating her disinterest.


After a boy steps into a girl's home, both sing a song of greeting to each other. The singing continues until the pair feel they need to express their affection in a more direct way.


"Many lovers meet once a week, but he came every two or three days," said Chen, a smile wrinkling her eyes. "I could hear his flute coming from far away."


Ji has always loved music, but was a farmer for most of his life until he joined an orchestra made up of Li musicians in Binglang Valley, a tourist destination in Baoting located an hour away from the coastal resort city of Sanya.


He performs for tourists every day and his exotic tunes are popular with visitors.


But Ji said he is happy simply playing music, as it takes him back to his youth and reminds him of the love he shares with his wife.



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