Xiamen is the most popular destination for foreign visitors to Fujian, and for good reason – the city is particularly clean, orderly and modern for a Mainland metropolis. However, the city’s rich history is always within reach, even in the midst of luxury shopping malls and gleaming new office towers.
The island of Xiamen has long been the strategic gateway to the sea. At low tide Xiamen is a mere kilometer away from the landmass of China, but that has been sufficient distance to let the island maintain its own unique atmosphere. After the Ming Empire fell to the Manchus in 1644, Ming loyalists held out on Xiamen and launched counterattacks for over three decades.
During the late 1800s, the local government accommodated the influx of Western merchants and missionaries by allowing them to settle on Guyanyu Island off the coast of Xiamen. The Westerners promptly established luxurious villas, churches, and even a few consulates. Colonial-style buildings still dot the scenic island, which is now Xiamen’s most popular attraction.
Xiamen suffered more than most cities from the Japanese invasion and the Chinese Civil War. The retreating Nationalist Army held on to nearby Kinmen Island (Jīnmén Dǎo;金门岛), a mere 6 km (4 mi) off Xiamen, despite a concerted attack by the People’s Liberation Army. For many years the Communists and Nationalists would shell each other, leaving the eastern half of Xiamen vulnerable and underdeveloped.
However, Xiamen’s proximity to Nationalist Taiwan would later prove an asset since Xiamen was one of the first Special Economic Zones established by Deng Xiaoping in 1980s. As relations between Taiwan and the Mainland improved, Xiamen received a massive influx of Taiwanese investment, helping to create one of the most modern and prosperous cities in all of China.