Hainan Island first enters written Chinese history in 110 BC, when the Han Dynasty established a military garrison there following the arrival of General Lu Bode. In 46 BC the Han court decided that the conquest was too expensive and abandoned the island. Around that time, Han people together with military personnel and officials began to migrate to Hainan Island from mainland China. Among them were the offspring of those who were banished to Hainan for political reasons. Most of them arrived in Hainan Island from the southern provinces of Guangdong, Fujian and Guangxi.
Li people are the original inhabitants of Hainan. They are believed to be the descendants of the ancient Yue tribes of China, who settled on the island between 7 and 27 thousand years ago.
The Li people mainly reside in the nine cities and counties in the middle and southern part of Hainan – the cities of Sanya, Wuzhishan and Dongfang, the Li autonomous counties of Baisha, Lingshui, Ledong, Changjiang, and the 'Li and Miao Autonomous Counties of Qiongzhong and Baoting'. Some others live elsewhere on Hainan with other ethnic groups in Danzhou, Wanning, Qionghai, Lingshui and Tunchang.
The area inhabited by the Li ethnic group totals 18,700 square kilometres (7,200 sq mi), about 55 percent of the province's total.
During the Three Kingdoms Period, Hainan was the Zhuya Commandery under the control of Eastern Wu.
At the time of the Song Dynasty (980-1279), Hainan became part of Guangxi Province, and for the first time large numbers of Han Chinese arrived, settling mostly in the north. Under the Yuan Dynasty (1206–1368) the island became an independent province then in 1370 was placed under the administration of Guangdong Province by the ruling Ming Dynasty. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, large numbers of Han Chinese from Fujian and Guangdong began migrating to Hainan, pushing the Li into the highlands in the southern half of the island. In the