Settlers began arriving on Kinmen as early as the Tang dynasty (AD 618–907), changing the original name of the island from Wuzhou to Kinmen, literally meaning ‘Golden Gate’ after the hopefully impenetrable gates that were put up to defend the island from pirate attacks. During the Ming (AD 1368–1644) and Qing (AD 1644–1912) dynasties, increasing numbers of Chinese migrants settled on Kinmen’s shores. The Ming loyalist Koxinga, also known as Cheng Cheng-kung, used Kinmen as a base to liberate Kinmen and Penghu from the Dutch. In the process, he chopped down all of Kinmen’s trees for his navy, something the residents still grumble about. Koxinga’s massive deforestation project made Kinmen vulnerable to the devastating soil-eroding winds that commonly sweep across the Strait.
Kinmen was a fairly peaceful place until 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek transformed the island into a rear-guard defensive position against the communist forces that had driven his own Nationalist army off the Mainland. Though his original plan was to have his soldiers recuperate on the island for a short period before launching a full-fledged attack on Mao Zedong’s armies, this never quite happened. Instead, martial law was declared on Kinmen as the island became the final flashpoint of the Chinese civil war. As a result, Kinmen was subject to incessant bombing from the Mainland throughout the 1950s and ’60s.
Martial law was lifted in 1993 and Kinmen residents are now allowed to travel freely to and from Taiwan. In 1995, Taiwan established Kinmen as the ROC’s sixth national park, starting a massive reforestation project with the hopes of turning the once off-limits military zone into a tourist destination. Soldiers have been put to good use planting trees, maintaining roads and restoring the island’s old houses, many built during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
In 2001, the so-called ‘Three Small Links’ were established between Taiwan and China, allowing legal (though limited) trade and travel between the two countries, via the Straits Islands – for the first time in more than half a century. This further opened Kinmen up to the outside world, and made it a vital channel for Taiwanese businessmen looking to travel to the Mainland more cheaply. Although there is some talk of opening these links further, the Xiamen–Kinmen route is not yet open to foreigners. Nonetheless, with all of its natural beauty and history, Kinmen is well worth a visit.