The “Lost Outlying Island” of the Tachen Diaspora

Written by Kai-yang Huang.

Image credit: Chiang Kai-shek at memorial of Yijiangshan battle, 1995. license: Public domain

The KMT’s retreat to Taiwan in 1949 was not its final retreat from China. In 1955 there was another massive retreat of Kuomintang civilian and military populations from the island chain of Tachen (大陳). “Tachen” is the name commonly used to refer to a group of islands near Zhejiang province, China, which includes Tachen (大陳), Yikiangshan (一江山), Nangchi (南麂), Pishan (披山). Before 1955, these islands were still under ROC control. Those living there before 1955 relocated to Taiwan, and this island chain’s story- the “lost” outlying island – has been forgotten by Taiwanese there. The retreat was the final and thus most recent retreat of the KMT, which solidified the borders of the PRC and ROC as they exist today. 

The Tachen archipelago lies 10 kilometres of the coast of Taizhou (台州), China, and 370 km away from Taipei. Tachen people speak Taizhounese, a dialect of the Wu language family distinct and mutually unintelligible from the southern Min, Hakka, and Mandarin found amongst Sinitic language speakers in Taiwan. Their local religion is distinct too: From the Tachen deity they honour to their cuisine, their local customs are distinct from the various communities living in Taiwan. They most commonly worship the god Yushiye (漁師爺), or Fishery Master, who is honoured to secure a good fish harvest. 

During the late 1940s, Chiang gradually realised his ultimate failure in mainland China. He chose Taiwan as the resistance base of his Nationalist government whilst also trying to keep several southeastern coastal islands as the front line for conflict with the CCP. Along with Matsu and Kinmen, Tachen was thus transformed into a frontline battleground as it found itself caught between the PRC and the now Taiwan-based ROC. Following the fall of the Zhoushan Islands near the Shanghai metropolitan area in March 1950, Tachen Islands have lost its northern defence range and under the shadow of PLA bombardment. 

There were many twists and turns before Chiang finally called for the evacuation, however. On June 25th, 1950, the Korean War began; Mao Zedong stopped his attack on coastal islands in Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong. Moreover, Tachen was free from the gloom of PLA occupation. Schools and government buildings were built to keep the administration dealing with routine matters. But as soon as Korean War ended, the PLA army changed its target from northeast China to southeast China right away.

On January 18th, 1955, the PLA started to attack Yikiangshan Islands (一江山島). Yikiangshan Islands is 10 kilometres north of Tachen Islands. On the dawn of January 19th, all defending troops on the Islands had been killed. The loss of Yikiangshan dented Nationalist morale because Tachen was now totally exposed to CCP bombardment. As a result, Chiang decided to retreat all soldiers and civilians and abandoned the islands. However, from February 2nd to 25th, a total number of 28 thousand people were sent by the Nationalists – using US navy vessels – to Taiwan, especially in Kaohsiung, Taitung and what is now New Taipei City. From then on, these populations were referred to in official publications as “Dachen Yibao” (大陳義胞).

In the beginning, most of them were resettled according to their hometown occupation. For example, if your occupation was fishing, you would be relocated to new houses next to a Taiwanese fish village. Moreover, if you worked in another profession, you would be resettled accordingly. After being forced to evacuate their hometown, many tried hard to make a new home in Taiwan, the so-called “new heaven,” for the Tachen people, but this was not always easy. Tachen peoples had their own fishery technique, culture and language. Officially, they are categorised as waishengren (外省人) since they do not originate from Taiwan. However, its grouped migration pattern is more closed to the idea of the diaspora since they moved from the same hometown together and relocated to one place, forming a new cultural island and maintaining their local lifestyle. 

The fate of the diaspora was long tied to the shifting tides of the cold war. The US withdrawal and KMT strategic decisions transformed the island into an anti-communist frontline. It was also the US entering into the Korean War that gave the island a brief respite from the conflict of the 1940s. When the Tachen people were forced to leave their hometown, they were carried to Taiwan by the US. Several Tachen people later decided to go to America to be a sailor in the 1960s when the government offered them career training and guidance. Although many started as seasonal sailors, many later resettled to the United States permanently enticed by the possibility of higher earnings. Whilst it was common to earn around $120 a month on the ship, Tachen migrants typically made up to $500 a month after resettling permanently. Among those who moved to the US, many Tachen people started their own businesses, the most common of which were Chinese restaurants. Migration and resettlement to the US followed a pattern of family-type migration, in which after one person from the family migrated to the US successfully, others followed suit. Although thousands of people migrated—or perhaps because of their large number—it has been reported by many from Tachen that the US customs agency long marked them as an unwelcome group, which made obtaining legal residence more difficult.

As Taiwan’s identity debates are slowly eking towards a consensus, it is essential to also pay attention to the diverse marginal voices of the people of Taiwan. Thus, because discourse about Taiwan as a “maritime nation” is increasingly common, more attention has been paid to marine conservation—for example, the Taiwanese Fotestry Bureau has transferred its maritime epidemic species survey to the Ocean Conservation Administration in the newly-established ministry-level Ocean Affairs Committee and the National Museum of Marine Science and Technology in Keelung now exhibits traditional Han fisheries. For the Tachen diaspora, the ocean has long been an important part of their customs and a poignant reminder of their forced migration from their homeland due to the Chinese civil war and their subsequent migration to the United States. Supposing that Taiwan perceives itself as a “maritime nation.” In that case, these narratives deserve a place in Taiwan’s modern historical understanding. This is especially the case since the complicated historical entanglement of the Tachen people and the broader forces of international politics so closely mirrors the current global situation of the whole of Taiwan today. Tachen might be the ROC’s “lost outlying island,” but the story of those from Tachen should not be lost to history. 

Kai-Yang Huang is a director at the Matsu Youth Development Association. He has a masters degree from the National Taiwan University Department of Geography, where he researched cultural practises on Matsu Islands. Currently, he is conducting interviews across to understand the nature of the outlying islands controlled by the ROC

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

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