Campus & Community

A human look at ‘brinkmanship island’

6 min read

Quemoy, 1958 site of China territorial battle, is still recovering

In 1958, many Americans viewed the island of Quemoy (or “Jinmen,” as it is called in Mandarin) as the “lighthouse of the free world,” the last bastion of resistance to Mao Zedong’s communist advances in China. Today, professors often cite 1958 Quemoy as a classic example of brinkmanship, a case study for high-pressure diplomacy in the face of escalating global tensions. But to the 40,000 people who were living there at the height of the Taiwan Straits crisis, Quemoy was simply “home.”

“Much of the extensive literature about Quemoy ignores the fact that there were people living on the island the entire time,” says Michael Szonyi, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities. “Cold War geopolitics had a profound and immediate impact on these residents’ daily lives.”

Szonyi, who teaches in Harvard’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, illuminates the details of life under confrontation in a forthcoming book titled “Cold War Island: Quemoy on the Front Line” (Cambridge University Press). Drawing on oral histories and archival documents, he explores how militarization and geopoliticization shaped daily life on Quemoy, from education to religion to family structure.

Quemoy is located just one mile off the southeast coast of China, on the edge of the Taiwan Strait. The island — which covers barely 70 square miles — became a symbol of resistance to Communism after 1949, when Mao established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and drove Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces out of the mainland and into Taiwan, Quemoy, and a few other neighboring islands.

In August 1958, for reasons that are still disputed, the PRC began to carpet-bomb Quemoy. More than 500,000 shells were dropped over a period of 44 days. Island residents spent their days in and out of bomb shelters, and Chiang Kai-shek deployed nearly 120,000 Taiwanese troops to protect the shorelines and return fire. The U.S. government, which already had Army advisers and CIA operatives on the island, sent naval vessels and air support to bolster Quemoy’s defenses. As tensions increased, the chairman of the United States Army Joint Chiefs of Staff began to lay out plans for a nuclear attack.

On Oct. 6, a cease-fire was finally called — but for the residents of Quemoy, life had been permanently altered. “The traditional social structures were forced to adapt to a different world when the troops arrived,” says Szonyi. “The island essentially became a military base, and the lives of residents were completely militarized.”

In his book, timed to appear on the 50th anniversary of the crisis, Szonyi examines a range of themes to paint a picture of life on Quemoy during the Cold War era, including how residents negotiated curfews, turned to market gardening to produce food to sell to the soldiers, and dealt with the bureaucracy required for life under a military regime.

“Residents needed permission to buy a bicycle, build a house, or spend the night outside of their villages,” says Szonyi. “Even basketballs had to be registered, because it was thought defectors might use them to swim to the mainland.”

In addition to the smaller frustrations of paperwork, the residents of Quemoy suffered from more severe social ills — in particular, the threat of rape and the creation of a system of army-run brothels.

“The distorted sex ratios and the assumption that soldiers needed sexual outlets to be kept in fighting trim meant that even women’s bodies became militarized, shaped by and dependent on military concerns and criteria,” says Szonyi.

On top of it all, there was the incessant noise of propaganda, a constant background to the rhythms of daily life. Enormous speakers blared nationalist ideology toward the mainland. Despite the cease-fire, both sides continued to drop shells containing propaganda leaflets on alternate days of the week. The paper bombardment continued for 21 years, until 1979. These shells, as well as those from the initial conflict, still dot the landscape of Quemoy — and their casings are now used to make cooking knives.

A combination of oral histories, official Taiwanese documents, and papers from village archives has enabled Szonyi to reconstruct what he calls the “lived experience of geopolitics” on Quemoy. Between 2002 and 2007 Szonyi visited the island repeatedly and conducted interviews with more than 70 residents who lived through the Cold War years.

“For the people of Quemoy, the Cold War is remembered less as an ideological confrontation than in terms of the minutiae of struggles of daily life,” says Szonyi. “It was exciting as a historian to give people the chance to tell the story in their own words.”

Szonyi also obtained a great deal of information from the archives of the Republic of China Ministry of Defense in Taipei.

“It is a testimony to the changes in Taiwan in the last few decades that even military archives are open to foreign researchers,” says Szonyi.

It was somewhat more complicated for Szonyi to gain access to documents from the Quemoy villages.

“While most local archives were destroyed, six village offices have preserved their files since the lifting of martial law in 1992,” says Szonyi. “The files are stored in a township office, in nearly 100 garbage bags, just bursting with documents that reflect the routine paperwork of village governance.”

Szonyi says he received “some pretty funny looks” while he went rummaging through the bags. His search proved fruitful, however: The papers contained a wealth of information about the militarization process, including weapons registries and travel permits.

“The bags were a rich source of materials, and I’m going to enjoy citing the documents from Trash Bag 1 or Trash Bag 2,” he quips.

Szonyi, who primarily studies 14th to 16th century Chinese history, became interested in Quemoy by chance. In September 2001, he traveled to the island for an academic conference to present a paper on the Ming dynasty. The tragedy of 9/11 prevented Szonyi from returning home on the date planned, so he could only wait to hear if and when normal air travel would resume.

To pass the time, Szonyi spent a few days touring the island and talking to villagers, gathering informal oral histories.

“I was immediately captivated, and I realized it could be the subject of a fascinating study,” says Szonyi.

At the end of the Cold War, the conflict over Quemoy became simply an issue between China and Taiwan, and was largely ignored or forgotten by the Western world, Szonyi says. After cross-Strait relations improved, the island was demilitarized. In the process, however, the island’s economy collapsed. It is still struggling to recover.

“As in many other places around the world, the experience of militarization was highly traumatic, but subsequent demilitarization was also very disruptive to local society,” Szonyi says.

Smuggling and tourism are now the main economic activities on Quemoy, according to Szonyi.

“The story of Quemoy demonstrates that the lived experience of geopolitical confrontation is as important as the high politics,” he says. “Without discussing how the broader political context affects people’s daily lives, events of the past are allowed to generate meaning at a level of abstraction far removed from how they were experienced.”