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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 (路博德). 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. 

During the Three Kingdoms Period, Hainan was the Zhuya Commandery (珠崖郡) 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 eighteenth century, the Li rebelled against the government, which responded by bringing in mercenaries from the Miao people regions of Guizhou Province. Many of the Miao settled on the island and their descendants live in the western highlands to this day. 

In 1906, the Chinese Republican leader Sun Yat-sen proposed that Hainan should become a separate province although this did not happen until 1988. 

Hainan was historically part of Guangdong and Guangxi Provinces and as such was the Ch'iung-yai or Qiongya Circuit (琼崖道) under the 1912 establishment of the Republic of China. In 1921, it was planned to become a Special Administrative Region 琼崖特別行政区); in 1944, it became Hainan Special Administrative Region with 16 counties containing the South China Sea Islands. 

During the 1920s and 30s, Hainan was a hotbed of Communist activity, especially after a bloody crackdown in Shanghai, the Republic of China in 1927 drove many Communists into hiding. The Communists and the Li natives fought a vigorous guerrilla campaign against the Japanese occupation of Hainan (1939–45), but in retaliation over one third of the male population were killed by the Japanese. Feng Baiju led the Hainan Independent Column of fighters throughout the 1930s and 1940s. After the Japanese surrender in 1945 the Nationalist Party (KMT) re-established control. Hainan was one of the last areas of China controlled by the Republic of China. From March to May 1950, the Landing Operation on Hainan Island captured the island for the Chinese communists. Feng Baiju and his column of guerrilla fighters played an essential role in scouting for the landing operation and coordinated their own offensive from their jungle bases on the island. This allowed the Hainan takeover to be successful. The takeover was made possible by the presence of a local guerrilla force.
On 1 May 1950, under the PRC, the Special Administrative Region became an Administrative Region Office (海南行政区公署), a branch of the Guangdong provincial government. On October 1, 1984, it became the Hainan Administrative Region (海南行政区), with a People's Government, and finally as province separate from Guangdong four years later.
In 1988, when the island was made a separate province, it was designated a Special Economic Zone in an effort to increase investment.

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