Kinmen, Taiwan and China: worlds apart

A guest essay by Jerome Keating.

Kinmen—Once More into the Breach?
Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

October 25th, the anniversary date of the battle of Guningtou approaches and the small island of Kinmen once again is in the spotlight. Kinmen sits some two kilometers off the southeastern coast of mainland China at the Jiulong River estuary in Fujian province. Though not large, its special location has nevertheless given it important, diverse, and changing roles in the history of China and later of Taiwan.

The name Kinmen (golden gate) comes from when Ming fortifications against marauding pirates were built in 1387, a foreshadowing that war and battles would leave a defining mark on the island. Zheng Cheng-gong (Koxinga) would use Kinmen in his ill-fated attempt to retake Ming China from the Manchu conquerors. Later the island would serve those same Qing Manchus as a defensive fort guarding the treaty port of Amoy (Xiamen). Later still the island would be the western

outpost of the Republic of China (ROC) against the People’s Republic of China.

One must visit Kinmen to get the full impact of its geographical, psychological, and political role in the Taiwan—China conflict. As you drive its near empty roads and pass through quiet, sleepy, little hamlets, it is hard to imagine that less than fifty years previous, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) rained down shell upon shell here in the constant bombardment that is known as the Aug. 23, 1958 Artillery Battle.

For forty-four days and nights over 470,000 shells were continuously fired at the island to isolate and subdue it. When that failed the PRC commenced to shell the island every other day for the next twenty years. This would finally stop in 1978, the year that the United States recognized the PRC and decided to transfer its embassy from Taiwan to China.

Museums commemorating the 1949 Guningtou Battle and the August 23 Artillery Battle along with the military fortifications that dot the island bear witness to this warlike past. But the island isn’t just battlefields. It has unique fauna and flora, villages laid out in the traditional architecture of Fujian province, shops making ten varieties of homemade peanut candy, the famed Kaoliang wine brewery, bird-watching for numerous migratory feathered friends, Wind Lions, and even small factories that turn spent military shells into excellent cleavers and knives.

Martial law in Kinmen ended in 1992, five years after it had on Taiwan and travel restrictions there began to be lifted. Though soldiers in fatigues are seen in the airport and occasionally on the streets, the ROC military presence is not as noticeable as it was twenty to thirty years ago and certainly not as it was in the 1950s and 60s when over 50,000 troops were stationed on the island.

The civilian population of Kinmen is sparsely spread around the island. Nevertheless, the unique experience of that limited population highlights how three different experiences of the past 100 years have been fashioned on both sides of the Taiwan Strait and suggests a new role for Kinmen. These three experiences are the mainland China experience, the Kinmen experience, and the Taiwan experience.

After the Qing Empire crumbled in 1911, the mainland China experience can be seen as a split of roughly fifty years under the KMT and fifty years under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), two one-party states neither of which really practiced democracy. The people on the mainland China side of the strait have never known democratic government.

The people of Kinmen, only 2 kilometers away have had a different experience for the past one hundred years. They have experienced almost continuous rule by the KMT (leaving out the Japanese occupation during World War II), the suffering of direct attack by the CCP, the continued presence of military and finally democracy coming there from the outside because of what happened on Taiwan.

Kinmen has seen a more favorable side of the KMT which was protecting it from the CCP. They saw the side of the KMT that was not afraid to go into the trenches. Of course, there was not much land here that the avaricious side of the KMT wanted to confiscate. Thus, it is understandable that Kinmen regularly votes pan-blue in elections in the ROC. Ironically however it was the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) struggles on Taiwan that got Kinmen the right to vote.

The Taiwan experience has been totally different from the above two. Its first fifty years were part of being a showcase colony of Japan, which very begrudgingly allowed Taiwan participation in the Imperial Diet. Then it suffered the KMT one-party state rule, 2/28 and the White Terror period. Finally at the end of that second fifty years it achieved a hard won democracy in 1996.

China, Kinmen, and Taiwan are so close and yet so different in past experience. Of the three, only Taiwan knows what it takes to wrest democracy from a one-party state. It is only Taiwan that can compare the contributions, benefits and problems of fifty years colonial rule by Japan and fifty years of one-party state rule by the KMT with that of democracy.

Kinmen, (Quemoy) was the impregnable gate guarding entry into the port of Xiamen, (Amoy). Later Kinmen reversed roles and became the outpost guardian of Taiwan against PRC attack. It now is being asked to play a new and different role as a link between these two countries.

As the site of the mini-three links, Kinmen provides direct access between the PRC and the ROC. As you travel from Kinmen to Xiamen you still encounter propaganda signs on the PRC islands saying China should be one country with two systems. As you travel back from Xiamen to Kinmen you see countering propaganda on the ROC islands that tout a truly democratic country guided by Sun Yat-sen’s three principles of government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Whether these three totally different past experiences of the people involved can or should be integrated is up to the people involved. The people of Taiwan have the most to lose. They have struggled to achieve democracy after enduring fifty years of rule by Japan and fifty years of one-party state rule by the KMT (including forty plus years of White Terror). They certainly now have no taste for a CCP one-party state that utters sugar-coated promises of brotherhood while it points its missiles at them and says you belong to us.

Is Kinmen up to the new role of mediator and/or middleman? True mediation demands sincerity with no pre-conditions on all sides. Does China really want democracy? Kinmen once more enters the breach.

Jerome Keating has lived and worked in Taiwan for 16 years and is co-author of the work Island in the Stream, a Quick Case Study of Taiwan’s Complex History. Additional writings can be found at

The Discussion: 12 Comments

Also known as Quemoy 🙂

October 25, 2005 @ 1:57 am | Comment

one explanation of the bombing of kinmen is that Mao wanted to sustain the civil war ‘nominally’.

international law requires 50 years of no dispute for ‘de facto’ independence/separation.

well, i don’t know much about legal stuff. i am just passing what i read/heard. 🙂

October 25, 2005 @ 2:17 am | Comment

I wish Jerome’s article had mentioned that in the “artillery battle(s)” of the 1950s, BOTH sides were bombing each other. Taiwan dropped hundreds of thousands of bombs onto the Mainland (particularly onto Xiamen).

The last time Taiwan bombed Xiamen was in 1994. Two bombs dropped on a village, and it was claimed to be an accident – which it probably was – although, the Western media ignored it. Most Westerners know nothing about Taiwan’s continual artillery harassment of the Mainland – which, to be clear, seems to have ended in the 1990s.

As most readers here know, I’m no apologist for the CCP or for Mainland Nationalisim. But fair is fair, and Taiwan has never exactly been a peace-loving paradise.

October 25, 2005 @ 5:08 am | Comment

Oh my God! After I sent my last comment, a google ad appeared over it, featuring a boxer knocking somebody out!


Is this some kind of Google joke about me and my bad temper? 🙂

October 25, 2005 @ 5:10 am | Comment

Ivan, some important points to remember about the shelling of Kinmen:

The ROC was returning fire. The Chinese fired first. When someone is shelling you, of course you will do your best to wipe out the artillery pieces firing at you.

A little scale is also needed: The PRC fired 474,910 rounds at Kinmen. ROC forces fired 74,889 back. That is almost an order of magnitude different. The PRC fired almost as many rounds the first day as the ROC did the entire barrage. (These numbers are from the ROC 823 Museum and thus open to charges of bias, anyone have other numbers that they prefer?)

I have heard about the accidental shot fired on Kinmen a little over a decade back. From my recollection, it was one shot. Is that right?

October 25, 2005 @ 8:29 am | Comment

Budding Sinologist:

Again I say, all regular readers of this site, know that I am NOT a defender of the CCP. I do respect SOME Communists, but overall I think China will be better off when the CCP dictatorship ends. As it will do, as it is ending now, slowly.


You are mistaken when you say Taiwan fired first. The artillery exhanges between the ROC and the PRC were going on, sporadically, ever since 1949, until Taiwan fired the last shots in 1994.

And, when it comes to Jimen Island – just two kilometres off the coast of the PRC – I am on the PRC’s side, in this dispute. The PRC has always had EVERY good, legal, reason, to fire back at any attacks from a hostile island just one mile (two kilometres) offshore – and to fire back with no mercy and with as much force as possible.

No matter who “started” it.

Jimen island is within swimming distance from Xiamen, in the PRC.

An “independent” Taiwan, far across the straits, is one thing. But an island occupied by hostile KMT forces, just one mile across from the mainland, is another thing entirely.

Imagine, if Staten Island (one of the islands of New York City) were occupied by the Germans, between 1941 and 1945. And then imagine the Germans on Staten Island, having huge arsenals and throwing bombs onto Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Or something like that. The point is, that no matter what you think about “Taiwan’s” claims to independence, still, the legitimate, internationally recognised government of the PRC has GOOD reasons to take a belligerent stance against anyone on Jimen island who tries to threaten the PRC.

I am no friend of the CCP. However, I am also an old warrior, of old warrior stock, and so, I DO respect the PRC’s right to defend itself from hostile arms on Jimen, with as much force as it can muster.

“Which side sent more bombs?” Doesn’t matter. The US bombed Japan a hell of a lot more than Japan ever bombed us – but the US had good reasons to do it. Likewise, when it comes to Jimen, I defend the PRC’s right to bomb the shit out of Jimen whenever Jimen poses any threat to the rightful, lawful government of the PRC.

October 25, 2005 @ 11:39 am | Comment

by 1994, I don’t think either side was belligerent.

so i have good reason to believe there was no reason that shell was not accidental.

October 25, 2005 @ 1:58 pm | Comment

I go over this in class when discussing Dulles’s Brinksmanship but could never explain how two tiny islands so near the mainland could remain Taiwanese. Just doesn’t make sense….

October 25, 2005 @ 4:55 pm | Comment

One theory I read (can’t remember where) was that the US tried to convince the ROC that it was pointless to keep Kinmen – but CKS stuffed it full of troops to the point that if Kinmen fell, then Taiwan would fall too (so giving the US no option but to support CKSs defense of Kinmen or withdraw all support).

Part of his obsession about taking back the mainland with 27 troops and 2 leaky barges …

October 25, 2005 @ 8:42 pm | Comment

Like Keir, I have wondered how Kinmen could have remained in ROC hands; in the 50’s and 60’s it is easy enough since the US was heavily supplying arms and ammunition. But it came up in the Nixon-Kennedy debates and Kennedy if I remember correctly argued it was not worth the struggle.

Of course in 1949, Mao did send at least 10,000 across at 2 am on Oct. 25th and after getting a foothold they were promoptly wiped out or taken prisoner–don’t know if that made them gun shy.

I would like to know if it came up in the Kissinger/Nixon discussions with China–have not seen anything on that but the shelling did end when the US recognized China.

Ivan, Xiamen is a far, far swim from Kinmen (over an hour by ferry) ; there are a lot of other PRC islands that are a lot closer–and a case of one ROC officer who defected and who allegedly is now well off in China.

As far as the ROC and the war is concerned, it was ongoing officially until April 30, 1991 when Lee Teng-hui (whom people love or hate) declared the termination of the Period of National Mobilization for Suppression of the Communist Rebellion. You gotta love that phrasing, but(I guess it was never quite suppressed.)

Yes there were a few rounds that went astray in 94 during artillery practice; as most have stated it appears to be accidental. Recently they had a practice and that issue came up so they made sure they were well clear of Xiamen.

October 26, 2005 @ 6:50 am | Comment

distance between kinmen and xiamen: less than 4 km (or a bit over 2 miles)

one hour ferry is the distance between HK island and Lantau Island, or a bit longer than Staten Is and the tip of Mahattan (Battery Park)

ohh “that phrasing” was invented by CKS. Lee TH has done a lot of eccentric thing, but he did a good job on this one.

October 27, 2005 @ 5:41 pm | Comment

ohh…in fact, the shortest points was 1.8km (1.1 mile), between Greater Kinmen and a small island called Jiaoyu.

October 27, 2005 @ 5:45 pm | Comment

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