Carried on the wind: the fascinating heritage of Kinmen’s emigres

Chen Jing-lan Western House ( 陳景蘭洋樓).

The following piece appeared in today’s Taipei Times.

For centuries, Kinmen attracted immigrants. An early name for the island was Xianzhou (仙洲) — the land of immortals. While locals claim this refers to Taiwu, the island’s highest peak, said to resemble a reclining deity, it suggests a favorable living environment. Indeed, Kinmen was once flush with verdure. The island’s deforestation was attributed to Zheng Chenggong’s (鄭成功, also known as Koxinga) shipbuilding drive in the mid-17th century, but this was merely the shedding of the undergarments in an enforced, centuries-long striptease.

Heavy logging began during the Yuan Dynasty (1294-1307) when salt production on the island required large quantities of timber. A vestige of this industry, which petered out as mechanization took hold in the late 1980s, has been preserved in the salt fields of Xiyuan (西園), a tourist attraction in the northeast of the island. During the Ming, Japanese marauders exacerbated things — at one stage holding the island hostage for 50 days, during which time they turned their blades to the local populace. Zheng’s forces completed the denudement.

The result was exposure to sandstorms and monsoons. Bare and bleak, a once enticing haven had become a forbidding outpost. Compelling immigrants to return to China’s Fujian Province, an anti-Ming edict of 1679 compounded the isolation. Farmers and fisherman were replaced by pirates and bandits, who terrorized villages, ransacking houses and piling their vessels with plunder, before bolting back to Xiamen. The evolution of the island’s wind lion gods dates to this period. Positioned around the island, these statues were erected to repel brigands as much as storms.

“The pirates kept coming until World War II, when Japan occupied Kinmen,” says Chen Mei-ling (陳美玲), a guesthouse owner in the village of Bishan (碧山) on the east coast. “So, people had to defend themselves,” she adds, recalling tales of elderly relatives organizing armed patrols. “Life in Kinmen was tough.”

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