Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Field Notes: Kinmen Island, Republic of China (Taiwan)

Field Notes: Kinmen Island, Republic of China (Taiwan)

The steel sensei bends over the artillery shells and his gloved hands embrace a heavy round.  He lifts the cylinder from the pile, crouches, tilts the metal toward the ground, and flips on his acetylene torch.  The blue-white heat slices a metal fragment, one of sixty the bombshell will yield.  Soon, the steel will become a kitchen knife.

Wu Tseng-dong, Kinmen Island’s master shrapnel designer, is hard at work in his studio.  Since 1937, the Wu family has built a community business around shaping cutlery from spent artillery casings, earning both Wu and his father before him the title “Maestro.”  And beyond the excellence of their creations, the Wu’s work ethic and shrapnel sculptures serve as useful reminders about the cultural memories that sustain Taiwan’s existence and forecast their enduring independence.

Kinmen Island, also called Quemoy, sits on the far western edge of the Taiwan Strait, 277 kilometers west of mainland Taiwan, but only two kilometers east of Xiamen, a city in the People’s Republic of China’s Fujian Province.  The Japanese first bombed Kinmen in 1937 and the Allies counterattacked during World War II.  In 1958, Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party attacked Kinmen Island, seeking to recapture the strategic location and threatening an amphibious assault.  Chairman Mao backed off after the Eisenhower Administration threatened China with nuclear war if they continued to attack Kinmen.

Although the explosions ended in Kinmen, the rounds did not stop.  Between 1958 and 1978, China fired over 500,000 projectiles filled with propaganda leaflets onto Kinmen, launching a political barrage across the strait every other day.  The leaflets fell from the shell’s base leaving the casings intact as they littered the Kinmen beach.  After two decades of quasi-martial campaigning, China gave up and Kinmen remained part of Taiwan.

Which begs the question: what made the people of Kinmen so determined to preserve independence from China, especially given Kinmen’s geographic proximity to the mainland and cultural ties to Fujian Province?  Were they coerced into doing so by Taiwan?  Had they pledged political loyalty to the Republic of China?  Or are others issues at play?

Although China is easily visible across the strait, the people of Kinmen self-identify as neither Chinese nor Taiwanese—but instead as Kinmenese. “There is nothing wrong with being Chinese, but Taiwan has more civil rights,” said a Kinmen resident.  Despite the fear of being marginalized by both sides, Kinmen seeks balance.  And while this may have increased hardships, even at the cost of half a million artillery shells over two decades, Kinmen Island—like the Republic of China—maintains its independence.

China’s population is fifty-two times greater than Taiwan, and their economic power dominates East Asia.  Taipei has increased economic partnership with Beijing in the past decade and encouraged mainland residents to visit Taipei’s National Palace Museum, where priceless artifacts from ancient China have been kept since the 1949 Communist rise to power.  Tourism to southeast Taiwan’s resorts and spas is on the rise, and the sum of these factors makes the ties between China and Taiwan appear stronger than ever.

But partnership does not suggest apathy.  “I don’t identify with the word Taiwan—the Republic of China has more meaning” said another Kinmenese local.  Founded in 1912, the Republic of China is still honored in Taiwan as mainland China’s “government in exile,” a claim acknowledged every hour each day at the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial’s changing of the guard in Taipei.  Even as trade and tourism grows, Taiwan, like Kinmen, appears reluctant to acquiesce to Beijing’s authority any time soon—at least not before Maestro Wu stops turning artillery shells into kitchen knives.

“We have enough steel to make knives every day for at least four or five more decades,” said Wu, unintentionally affirming Taiwan’s own vision for its continued existence.  As his family’s forge makes the war’s history disappear, Maestro Wu’s patient craftsmanship embodies Taiwan’s enduring duality: the peace forged over time between the two Chinese governments and the fierce commitment the Republic of China maintains to preserving its political, cultural and territorial way of life no matter the cost.