The islands of KINMEN (金門; jīnmén), huddled just over 2km off the mainland Chinese coast, are among Taiwan’s most fascinating travel destinations, with a wealth of historic, cultural and culinary delights rolled into one of the most heavily fortified places on earth. Once the front line in the struggle between Mao Zedong’s Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, the main islands of Kinmen and Lieyu are seemingly impregnable fortresses. Indeed, if you’re looking for a beach, think again; the superstitious Chinese fear of the sea is still much in evidence here, and beaches remain underdeveloped or littered with rusting iron spikes. Yet within this harsh exterior, and in between myriad military sites, some of Taiwan’s most emblematic culture thrives, largely undiluted by outside forces and the encroachment of modernism.
Kinmen is home to an impressive concentration of historic structures, from Ming-dynasty memorial arches and Qing-inspired burial mounds to “Western-style houses” (yánglóu), actually European-Fujianese hybrid structures built by prosperous Kinmen natives who made their fortunes in southeast Asia. Scattered all over the island are Kinmen’s signature folk icons, the most common of which are the intriguing stone wind-lion god statues (風獅爺; fēngshīyé) that for centuries have watched over the island’s villages and are believed to protect them from the ravages of heavy winds and storms.
In 1995, much of the island became Taiwan’s sixth national park – the only one dedicated to the preservation of historic monuments and battlefield memorials. Many once-important military sites have been decommissioned and are now open to the public, giving tangible insights into the grim reality that for Kinmen’s hardy residents has only recently begun to brighten.
A brief history
Though archaeological evidence suggests that Kinmen was inhabited as long as 6500 years ago, it was not until 317 AD that the first traceable ancestors of contemporary Kinmen clans moved to the island to escape turmoil in central China. This settlement was on a small scale however, and the island remained a cultural backwater until the Tang dynasty, when the ancestors of twelve clans, led by Chen Yuan, arrived to breed and raise horses in 803. The horse-breeding efforts met with limited success, and much of Kinmen’s development over the next few centuries consisted in the establishment of oyster farms. In 1297, a salt mine was set up to supply the mainland. In the following centuries the island became a popular hiding place for Chinese and Japanese pirates. In the 1640s, the Ming loyalist general Koxinga occupied the island and used it while preparing his navy to fight against the Qing forces that had overrun China. During his reign, many of the island’s indigenous trees were felled for use in shipbuilding, leaving much of Kinmen barren and subject to the severe winds that dominate the Taiwan Strait.
After the Opium War in 1842, when the nearby city of Xiamen became one of China’s five treaty ports, many Kinmen residents began travelling to Southeast Asia via Xiamen to do business, in the process amassing considerable wealth, which they used to build lavish, European-inspired houses back home. But when the Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, Japanese forces immediately seized the island and occupied it for eight years, bringing to an end its most prosperous period. In 1949, Kinmen bore the brunt of another invasion force, this time from Chiang Kai-shek’s retreating Nationalist army, which used the island as the front line in its preparations to recover mainland China from Mao Zedong’s Communists. On August 23, 1958, the Communists launched a brutal artillery attack on Kinmen, firing almost 475,000 shells in 44 consecutive days of bombing. The shelling continued intermittently for the next twenty years. Since the lifting of martial law in 1987, Kinmen has undergone a small-scale renaissance, with promising economic ties to mainland China being forged, setting the stage for a new period of growth and development.