The city of Xiamen, Fujian Province, is situated on the coast about 50 kilometers, measured from city center to city center, below the city of Quanzhou. Since China's coast here lies on a southwest-northeasterly axis, with Taiwan, which also lies on the same directional axis, situated some 150 kilometers off the mainland coast, this means that the center of Xiamen lies about 50 kilometers southwest of the center of Quanzhou. To place the city of Xiamen in relation to Taiwan, the nearby city of Quanzhou lies on a parallel, or latitude, that intersects the island of Taiwan roughly at its north-south center. Like many medium-sized cities in China, Xiamen consists not only of the city proper, but of a good portion of the surrounding "upland", even though Xiamen is not officially a prefecture-level city (albeit, as a SEZ, or Special Economic Zone, Xiamen has provincial level authority in economic matters).
Thus Xiamen includes Xiamen Island itself, on which the districts of Huli and Siming are located (Si-ming, or "Remembering Ming", is a reference to the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty, Siming being an older name for the present-day city of Xiamen). The piece of land located due west of Xiamen Island, and on which the city of Haicang is situated, is also a part of Xiamen, as are Jimei and its environs to the northwest, Tong'an and its environs to the north and Xiang'an and its environs to the east. In all, including the expanses of ocean surrounding Xiamen Island itself, Xiamen spans an administrative area of some 1500 square kilometers, a rather sizeable area, all things considered. Xiamen Island is connected to the mainland via a series of bridges to the west and to the north of the island.
As a port city, Xiamen has an ancient history, though the city only became important as a budding port with the advent of the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty, and really only became a major Chinese and international port during the Ming Dynasty, as the following historical review reveals.
A Brief History
The city of Xiamen, like the city of Quanzhou, belonged to Quanzhou Prefecture, which area was earlier known as Min Nan ("Southern" Min – of the Minyue, one of the many tribes of the "Hundred Yue" peoples who resided on the southern fringes of pre-Han (BCE 206 – CE 220) Dynasty China). In Hokkien, which is one of the major Min Nan languages, the city of Xiamen was known as É Mui, or "Lower Gate", quite possibly a reference to the Nine Dragon River on which the city is situated (in ancient Asian culture – of which the Chinese culture was the most dominant – valleys, rivers and mountain ranges, etc., had natural access points, or gates). The English language bastardization of É Mui was "Amoy", a name that stuck for a very long period, and whose Hokkien original is still used in certain parts of Xiamen. And of course, the name Amoy was used in many European historical contexts, and, as well, is used in many modern commercial contexts, such as in Amoy noodles, Amoy soy sauce, etc., and of course the Hokkien dialect of Xiamen is called, in English, the Amoy dialect.
The earliest Chinese footprint on Xiamen came during the 3rd year of the Taikang reign (CE 280-289) of Emperor Wu Di of the Western Jin (CE 265-316) Dynasty, or in CE 282, when the area in and around present-day Xiamen was designated as Tong'an County, part of the then Jin'an Prefecture. Later, Tong'an County would become a part of Nan'an County. During the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, Nan'an County was renamed Tong'an, as part of Quanzhou Prefecture. During the Song Dynasty, when piracy was increasingly becoming a problem for China, the entire area, including Quanzhou Prefecture, came under the jurisdiction of the Chinese military, centered in the city of Quanzhou, and the port at Xiamen was of supreme military importance. Even at this point in time, however, Xiamen was hardly larger than a moderate-sized fishing village. It was first during the Ming Dynasty that the fishing village was built up, becoming first a town (during the reign (CE 1328-1398) of the Hongwu Emperor, Emperor Taizu), then a city. Quanzhou had in the meantime become a province of the same name.
Xiamen became an important trade and resupply port used by Europeans beginning in 1541, in the middle of the Ming Dynasty period. It was the Portuguese especially who were making their colonial presence felt in Asia at the time. The Portuguese had earlier entered into an agreement in 1535 with the Ming government of Emperor Shizong (aka the Jiajing Emperor, whose reign stretched from 1521-66) to use Macau as a resupply port, but the port at Xiamen was the first Chinese port during the period to be used for the purpose of foreign (European, and principally Portuguese) trade as well as resupply.
One of the most famous native personnages of Fujian Province, Zheng Chenggong, aka Koxinga, the Chinese pirate and national hero who helped reclaim the island of Taiwan from Holland in the beginning of the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, is claimed by the city of Xiamen as their son, while the famous hero was in fact born in the nearby small village of Nan'an (the city of Quanzhou also claims to be the hometown of Koxinga). In 1655, Xiamen Island was renamed as Siming ("Remembering Ming", as indicated above) Island by none other than Koxinga himself, though a few years later, in 1680, Xiamen would become Xiamen Subprefecture (to read an altogether different view of the pirate Koxinga (some say that Zheng Chenggong cum Koxinga, a Han Chinese "guerilla war" seaman who harrassed and fought the Manchu Qing government as much as he possibly could, albeit, in the classic 'attack and melt away' style of the land guerilla, first turned his attention to Taiwan, which was occupied and weakly defended by the Dutch, when he was definitively repulsed by Qing government forces... on Taiwan, Koxinga would abandon the guerilla style of attack in favor of a ferocious, sustained attack, or siege), click here).
Xiamen Island and its port would become one of the five Chinese ports to be opened to foreign trade as part of the armistice at the close of the First Opium War (1839-42), i.e., the Treaty of Nanjing (1842), the first in a long series of humiliating, so-called Unequal Treaties, the last agreed to in 1933 between Japan and the Republic of China. Two of these five ports, Fuzhou and Xiamen, would also be open to foreign missionaries, and thus Xiamen – or Amoy, as it was called by the Europeans and the North Americans – became a center for Protestant Christian missions to China in the years to follow; Amoy is in fact the birthplace of Christian Protestantism in China.
Prior to the escalation of the trade conflict between Britain and China that led to Britain's importation of opium into China as a way to redress the trade imbalance between the two countries (which was grossly in China's favor) – an escalation that would produce two short wars between these two countries – Xiamen served as an unofficial foreign trading center, where silk, spices and other Chinese goods were sold under-the-counter to those foreign governments that were willing to accept such an arrangement – mainly Holland, Portugal and Spain.
The British were not content with these back-door, or under-the-counter, trade arrangements, insisting on over-the-counter trade arrangements with the Qing government. This led first to the British import of opium into China from India (meaning that it was an acceptable import from a neighboring country with which China had long established trade arrangements), a Bitish move that only raised the ante, as it were, in this high-stakes gamble between Britain and China.
Since the trade in opium was a clever, roundabout British tactic ultimately aimed at redressing the trade imbalance between the two countries (the imbalance was due to the Qing government's reluctance to open China up to foreign imports – or rather, the two-way trade which had earlier flourished was suddenly and unilaterally halted by the Qing government), it infuriated the Chinese, who were further incensed over the fact that many of its citizens were becoming addicted to the substance (as were many foreigners, some of whom were distinguished writers and artists, including the British poet, Rudyard Kipling, though this latter development was of no particular concern to China except that it further tipped the balance of trade in Britain's favor). Eventually, the lack of reconciliation on both sides led to first one, then another "opium war", as they were called.
The British were pushed out of Xiamen when the Japanese occupied practically the entire coast of China, as well as the island of Taiwan, during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), which morphed into the Pacific Theatre of the Second World War (1939-45) in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 (note that the Japanese had acquired the island of Taiwan from China already in 1895, as part of the armistice that concluded the First Sino-Japanese War (August 1, 1894 – April 17, 1895)). During the Xinhai Revolution (October 10, 1911 – February 12, 1912), which resulted in the forced abdication of the last Chinese emperor, Emperor Xuantong (1908-11), Xiamen Subprefecture again briefly became Siming Island, but after the Republic of China (1912-1949) had been established, Siming Island became Xiamen City.
Since Taiwan had long ceased to be a part of China, and since the island became a refuge for Chinese Nationalist forces under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek in the wake of the Communist Revolution on the mainland – which civil war had hotted up considerably after the defeat of Japan in 1945 – some of the small islands that earlier made up a part of Xiamen came under the control of the Nationalists forces of Chiang Kai-Shek. Thus, the two small archipelagoes of Matsu (alternatively, Mazu) and Kinmen (Quemoy), whose closest small islands are located only a few kilometers from Xiamen Island, became – as they remain to this day – a part of Taiwan, albeit, a Taiwan which mainland China considers little more than a break-away province.
Control of Gulangyu Islet, which belongs to present-day Xiamen, was wrested from the Qing government in 1903 by certain members of the same foreign powers behind the so-called Unequal Treaties, and became an international settlement occupied by European and Japanese traders – and even by certain wealthy overseas Chinese traders – who built lavish mansions, consulates and churches on the island. Gulangyu Islet fell to the Japanese in 1942, but reverted back to the Republic of China af the defeat of Japan in 1945, before it was conquered by Chinese Communist forces under Mao Zedung.
As earlier indicated, Xiamen is one of China's five SEZ, thanks in part to its naturally-occurring deepwater port that never freezes over and – thanks to the harbor's special currents – silting is never a problem. Xiamen's main industrial activities are shipbuilding, machine tool manufacturing, telecommunications, chemical production and food processing, as well as tanning and textile fabrication. Xiamen also has a budding financial services sector, and the city's importance as a venue for large-scale conferences of every stripe is growing exponentially (one of Xiamen's major annual conferences is the China International Fair for Investment and Trade (think: foreign direct investment), held in September).
Many of Xiamen's foreign direct investments stem from neighboring Taiwan, where the Hokkien dialect is quite similar to the Amoy dialect on Xiamen, aka the South Fujian Dialect, though there are many Xiamen investors who hail from Hong Kong and Macau. As a SEZ, Xiamen is divided into 5 special trade zones, whose respective functions can be directly derived from their names: Xiamen Export Processing Zone, Xiamen Haicang Taiwanese Investment Zone, Xinglin Taiwan Merchants Development Zone, Xiamen Torch Hi-Tech Industrial Development Zone and Xiamen Xiangyu Free Trade Zone.
Xiamen is also home to a unique cottage industry devoted to hand-painted oil paintings, employing some 5000 artists in Xiamen Wushipu Oil Painting Village and some 3000 artists in Xiamen Haicang Oil Painting Village. Alongside their hand-painted oil paintings, the two oil painting villages also produce accessories for painters – including paints, brushes and picture frames – that are sold in artist supply shops and in picture framing specialty shops worldwide. In China itself, the two oil painting villages directly supply wall paintings to numerous hotel chains and office complexes, and their products can be purchased in many upscale galleries throughout China. Abroad, their finished paintings and their painting accessories are popular in Europe and in North America. For example, about 80% of all hand-painted oil paintings found in commercial galleries in Europe and in North America stem from this unique cottage industry in Xiamen.
Another Xiamen cottage industry is the manufacture of sunglasses; with an export of some 120 million pairs of sunglasses annually, Xiamen is the world's largest supplier. Xiamen is also the world's largest supplier of Tungsten, due to its role as a SEZ. In addition, the island of Xiamen, thanks to its mild, subtropical climate, its abundant sunshine and its many islets, its clean, sandy beaches, coves, mountain cliffs and crags, odd rock formations and ancient, flower-studded temple grounds surrounded by ancient trees – not to forget the island's many interesting seascapes (Xiamen is often referred to as "The Garden on the Sea") – is a paradise for the active tourist.
Xiamen Island is also called "Egret Island", due to its suggestive shape, though legend would have it that this is because, in ancient times (really, really ancient times!), egrets in their millions nested on the island, therefore the bird-god transformed the island into the shape of the bird that made Xiamen its home (any tourist site in China worth its salt naturally has at least one legend attached to it, usually a legend that involves interaction between mortals and immortals).
There are numerous shopping malls in Xiamen, and of course Xiamen has its fair share of international department stores and intermational supermarket chains such as Wal-Mart and Metro. If dining is your thing, and especially if you like the seafood recipies of Taiwan, you'll love Xiamen's many seafood restaurants. There are also numerous Western restaurants in Xiamen, serving everything from a quick pizza to a fullblown, four-course French meal. Nationally famous as the National Garden City, the National Model City for Environmental Protection, the National Sanitary City, the National Excellent Tourist City and China's most livable – if not most lovable – city, Xiamen is also a favorite destination for the foreign tourist.
Zhongshan Lu is a popular Xiamen shopping street lined with several upscale fashion shops and shoe stores. It also has a pedestrian mall with art galleries, movie theaters, bars and cafés. Xiahe Lu is a relatively new, albeit more conventional shopping street with several shopping malls that cater to every member of the family, from grandmother to the family's newest addition. Bailuzhou Shopping and Recreational Center is another large, conventional shopping environment replete with restaurants, bars, cafés, movie theaters, gaming arcades and fitness centers – it too offers something for everyone.
Xiamen is renowned for its Min Nan Music tradition, its Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra, its many puppet shows, its Gezi Opera (a barely 100-year-old opera tradition shared by Taiwan and Fujian Province, Gezi Opera, unlike Beijing Opera and many other Chinese operas, makes little use of masks, but, in contrast, often makes use of several actors on the stage simultaneously) and its many temple celebrations. Other cultural highlights in Xiamen include an annual international music festival in May, various piano competitions round about the city where the public is invited to attend, weekend classical concerts on Huangyan Lu street near Sunlight Crag, aka Dragon Head Hill on the island of Gualangyu, which crag faces Tiger Head Hill across the water on Xiamen Island.
Other highlights in and around Xiamen include: neighboring Gualangyu Island, under the jurisdiction of Xiamen, with its unique and uniquely beautiful landscapes that include the aforementioned Sunlight Crag, Yuyuan Garden, Garden of Beans and Bright Moon Garden; Zheng Chenggong Memorial Hall; Hulishan Fortress (one of the best-preserved fortresses of its kind, it is truly a must-see attraction); South Putuo Buddhist Temple; the Botanical Gardens; and Wuyi Mountain, on which are located many temples – Taoist temples especially.
Xiamen-Gaogi International Airport (XMN) is well connected to the rest of China as well as to the region, with daily flights to regional Asian cities such as Bangkok, Jakarta, Kohong (Thailand) Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Manila, Nagoya and Osaka (Japan), Penang (Malaysia), Seoul, Singapore, and Taipei and Taichong (Taiwan). In addition, there are direct daily flights between XMN–Hong Kong and between XMN–Macau.
Xiamen Island and its environs has a mild, four-season climate, albeit, with very little frost and even less snow (the last snowfall in Xiamen occurred in January 1893, when the city was blanketed with a whopping 15 centimeters of snow, and to give an idea of the magnitude of this peculiar event, snow from this same storm fell on Macao, on Guangzhou and on Hong Kong). Xiamen was recently named as China's cleanest city, with one of the most pleasant, most ambient scenic atmospheres in all of China, a place where a morning, midday or evening stroll is inestimable. As an added attraction on Xiamen Island, motorcycles and mopeds are banned (they are elsewhere allowed in Greater Xiamen), as are the use of automobile horns.
Xiamen also won the highly prestigious LivCom Award in 2002 as the world's most environmentally-friendly city (the LivCom Award Committee functions under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme). In 2004, the city of Xiamen was among four winners (individuals, organizations and governments) of the UN-Habitat Scroll of Honor award (the other three 2004 UN-Habitat Scroll of Honor winners were: President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique; the Centre for Development Communication (CDC – not to be confused with the Center for Disease Control in the US!), CDC being a self-help initiative in the Indian city of Jaipur aimed at collecting garbage and thus providing jobs to the poorest of the poor; and The Big Issue, a current affairs magazine that is published in 55 variants in 28 countries and which, as the title suggests ("The Big Picture" might be an acceptable alternative title), highlights many pressing social and political issues, local as well as international, and which is sold entirely by homeless street vendors who are thus secured an income of sorts, however modest.
Lastly, the proud inhabitants of Xiamen will insist that the world famous Ming Dynasty port of Quanzhou (China's largest at the time, and possibly the world's largest for a time) was not located in Quanzhou proper, but in Xiamen, which, at the time, was under the administrative jurisdiction of Quanzhou, and therefore considered a part of Quanzhou. Thus, according to the proud inhabitants of Xiamen, the intrepid traveler Marco Polo, when he set out for Persia from China enroute to Italy – and with a Chinese bride-to-be destined for a Persian prince in tow – sailed not from Quanzhou harbor, as traditionally believed, but – of course! – from Xiamen harbor!