Poised tantalizingly close to the coast of mainland China’s Fujian province, the MATSU ISLANDS (馬祖列島; mǎzŭ lièdǎo) are second only to Kinmen in their proximity to the PRC – a fact that explains the formidable displays of military force on most of them. The archipelago is geographically, historically and culturally distinct from mainland Taiwan. Its inhabitants’ ancestors originally migrated from northern Fujian, and here more than anywhere else their traditional ways of life are preserved. In addition to upholding their fishing heritage, most of the islanders speak the Minbei dialect, commonly referred to in English as the “Fuzhou” dialect – it’s markedly different from the “Minnan” (southern Fujian) dialect that’s predominantly spoken throughout Taiwan.

Although the archipelago comprises nineteen islands and islets, only six of them are accessible to tourists, each with a distinct flavour and appeal. While the main island and tourist centre, Nangan, has the greatest variety of attractions, the less crowded Beigan has the best beaches and examples of northern Fujianese architecture. Hilly Dongyin and Xiyin – which are connected by a causeway – feature the most striking topography, and the sister islands of Dongju and Xiju are brimming with historic landmarks. In fair weather, all the islands can easily be reached via ferries originating at Nangan, but you should allow at least a week if you want to visit all of them at a leisurely pace. Given the distance required to travel here from mainland Taiwan, it makes sense to take your time and soak up the atmosphere at each one.

Although the entire archipelago is named “Matsu”, locals and Taiwanese tourists routinely refer to the biggest, most visited island of Nangan as “Matsu” as well: according to legend, the Chinese goddess Mazu’s dead body washed ashore on one of its beaches.

The best period to visit is from late May to September, as warm weather and clear visibility allow for regular flights and ferry services. The islands are shrouded in thick fog from March to early May and battered by heavy winds in winter, making air and sea connections highly erratic and visits far less enjoyable at these times.

A brief history

The Matsu Islands were first settled in the mid-1300s, when fishermen from China’s Fujian province used them for shelter during stormy weather and eventually set up permanent bases. The heaviest migration took place in the 1600s, when boatloads of mostly northern Fujianese refugees began arriving in the wake of the Manchu invasions from northeastern China. Throughout much of the Qing dynasty the islands were plagued by piracy, with periodic raids forcing many settlers at least temporarily to abandon their homes. Unlike the rest of Taiwan, the Matsu Islands were never colonized by the Japanese, and they remained sleepy fishing outposts until 1949, when the retreating Nationalists seized them along with Kinmen and built numerous military installations to fend off advances by mainland Communists. In August 1954, the Nationalist government sent 15,000 troops to Matsu, instigating an artillery bombardment by the Communists. The shelling continued steadily until 1956, when the US supplied the Nationalists with sophisticated weaponry that effectively countered the Communist offensive, and the bombing continued only sporadically until August 1958, when the Communists resumed a massive artillery attack on the island and threatened to invade. The US responded by deploying its Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait, providing naval aircraft that enabled the Nationalists to establish control of the region’s airspace. In October 1958, Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong proposed a deal: if US warships stayed away from the mainland coastline, the Communists would only bomb the strait islands on odd-numbered days. The offer was rejected at first, but two years later the Americans and Taiwanese agreed and the alternate-day shelling continued until 1978.

Martial law wasn’t lifted on Matsu until 1987, but since then the military presence has been gradually scaled back and local businesses have increasingly turned towards tourism. In recognition of the islands’ unique history and culture, the archipelago was designated the Matsu National Scenic Area in 1999. In 2001 Matsu (and Kinmen) received an economic boost with the implementation of the Three Small Links agreement, which allows local residents to engage in limited direct travel and trade with mainland China.