At the Edge of State Control: The Creation of the “Matsu Islands”

Written by Sheng-Chang Lin.

Image credit: Matsu Island, photo provided by author

In common parlance, Matsu is most commonly lumped together with Kinmen under the umbrella term of “Kin-Ma” (金馬) even though the histories of these two regions are not that similar. Being the lesser understood region of the pair, there is often little discussion of Matsu and its history or awareness of how the peculiar unit collectively referred to as the “Matsu Islands” came into being. Indeed, before the Cold War, no such region existed. Instead, it was a collection of 36 islands scattered along the coast near Fuzhou in the Fujian province. The process through which “Matsu” emerged as a distinct administration region and subsequently emerged as an imagined community with a shared identity reveals a unique process of expansion and transformation of the ROC’s state power following its retreat from China in 1949.

However, to tell the story of Matsu, one must start before the Cold War. Although the emergent post-WW2 world order transformed what is now known as Matsu into a military frontier wedged between two “Chinas,” the islands have long been a border region that has somewhat eluded state power. As early as the Song dynasty, the Matsu region was home to fishing communities that occasionally became involved in maritime trade due to their access to trade routes. In addition to participating in legitimate, above-board trade, many islanders also became engaged in piracy targeting merchant ships, which was a highly lucrative practice. As a result, state power has long been less effective at sea.

Moreover, the region’s reputation as a home for illegal activity long attracted officials, who saw it as a threat to their authority and control of trade. Furthermore, island residents were ordered to leave the region and relocate to Mainland Fujian during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Until the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, a “Baojia system” was in place across the islands, which relied much more on local leaders and kinship ties within villages than typical dynastic governance structures. Unable to control the region directly, rulers had to settle for a hands-off management system to enact their goals for this region.

The emergence of “Matsu” as a singular unit and not a plurality of smaller units reflects the region’s gradual encroachment of state power after centuries of ruling from afar. In part, due to the development of administrative techniques – but primarily in response to the emerging Cold War – establishing regional control significantly leapt up the list of priorities for the ROC government. After a series of stops and starts and different administrative transformations, “Lienchiang County(連江縣)” – originally one of the counties along the Fuzhou’s coast and administrative sections of the Matsu Islands – became the government of the whole Matsu Islands, and a new county seat was established on Nangan, which slowly emerged as the centre of this new region. Like the rest of the ROC’s territories, this was also a period of martial law and tight surveillance across Matsu. Although such governance was lifted, this region was no longer governed under the martial institution after 1992. Moreover, “Lienchiang County” and the name “Matsu” continued to carry their significance until recently. For example, in 2002, Taiwan’s government applied for membership of the World Trade Organisation by the name “TPKM (the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu)” (台澎金馬個別關稅領域). Another example is that in the urban planning project of this region, the two concepts, the Matsu region and Lienchiang County, are employed at once. Nowadays, those two concepts are frequently used in Taiwan’s society, which usually confuses many people. 

These reforms were not just administrative in their effect; they are also reflected in changing identification amongst locals. Elders from the region typically still identify as Fujianese descending from the Mindong areas in the province, including Changle, Luoyang, and the provincial capital, Fuzhou. They also usually refer to their dialect of the Mindong language as “Fuzhounese,” which is the prestigious dialect of the Mindong language family. This identification reflects the historical ties that have existed between the islands and neighbouring Fujian, many of which were cut off in 1949 following the ROC retreat to Taiwan. For the younger generation, it is more common to hear themselves refer to themselves as “馬祖人,” or people from Matsu islands, and refer to the local language as Matsu-nese “馬祖話.” Indeed, border crossing and transit between Fujian and Matsu has gone from a feature of daily life across the islands to an issue that needs to be governed and regulated. Where Matsu had once been a border region somewhere outside of state control, it now represents a hard border that separates two states that do not recognise each other. When conflict between the two flares up, Matsu serves as the frontline. Recently, sand-dredging ships carrying Chinese flags have been spotted in Matsu waters, despite this being illegal. Even if the Cold War has ended, its effects are still felt across the region. 

As well as creating Matsu as a region, the Cold War also tied Matsu to Taiwan. Communication had been minimal between the two before the war—Taiwan was a colony of Japan, whereas Matsu was part of Fujian—but not both regions were part of a new post-war state. Especially due to the prosperity on Taiwan Island, migration from Matsu to Taiwan has become increasingly common. Nowadays, the Bade district of Taoyuan City(桃園市八德區) and Keelung City (基隆市)are known for their large Matsu population. However, how Matsu fits into the emerging ROC (Taiwan) community is still an open question. In the categories of “Taiwan’s four-main ethnic groups(台灣四大族群),” Matsu’s people, as well as their culture, do not exist as a distinct entity. Like Kinmen, Matsu belongs to “Fujian Province ROC (福建省).” However, it is different from Taiwan because Taiwan belongs to “Taiwan Province(台灣省).” Although these local governments units in the province (省, Sheng), have not functioned substantially since 1998, Matus is still technically part of Fujian province. 

Not being native of “Taiwan province,” the government has long grouped Matsu and Kinmen residents as part of the “Waishengren” (外省人) or Mainlanders from other provinces. In this way, cultural heterogeneity is eliminated into homogeneity. In other words, those Matsu people are seen as the same as the Kinmen people and those who come from the ROC retreat. However, this category is also confusing when applied to the Matsu people who live in Matsu. There is nothing “outsider” about their presence, only that state borders have shifted around them. Although odd, such a categorisation reflects a common theme for Matsu and its region to larger powers: It is somewhat anomalous and at once invisible and strategically important.

The persistence of this categorisation reflects that the question of where Matsu and its inhabitants fit in contemporary Taiwan remains an open question. As the ROC and Taiwan are increasingly seen as one—and references to “Taiwan province” are increasingly out of fashion, what place do inhabitants of an island chain, grouped together into one administrative unit and still technically part of the Fujian province have in this new emergent political state? Such questions are rarely directly discussed, but they continue to linger in the background and influence Matsu to this day. Moreover, language has been a recent flashpoint. In 2017, the government recognised the Matsu language (a dialect of the Mindong language family, not of the Minnan language family common across Taiwan) as a native language of the ROC. 

These lingering questions of Matsu as a region and its place within the ROC state highlight both the enduring legacy of the Cold War and the longer legacy of an increasingly powerful state slowly encroaching its border regions. From a collection of fishing islands to a singular county at the border of two rival states, Matsu’s story bears the marks of a changing balance of power and system of state control. Although it has long been at the borderlines, its stories are deeply symbolic of more extensive historical processes. 

Sheng-Chang Lin is a graduate student at the department of geography, National Taiwan University. He researches state-society relations, and it currently working on Matsu as a case-study.

This article was published as part of a special issue on The Outlying Islands.

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