Xiamen is an island city with a rich and dramatic history, replete with pirates, rebel leaders, and European merchants. Now linked to mainland Fujian by a causeway, Xiamen retains a strong international flavor. Known in the West as Amoy, Xiamen has a long history as a port city, and later became a center of British trade in the 19th century. Their foreign settlements, later taken over by Japanese invaders at the start of World War II, were established on the nearby small Gulangyu Island. Many of the old treaty-port and colonial buildings in Western styles survive. Xiamen was declared one of China’s first Special Economic Zones in the early 1980’s, taking advantage of the city’s heritage as a trading center and the proximity to Taiwan. Today Xiamen is one of China’s most attractive and best-maintained resort cities.
Xiamen was founded in 1394 at the beginning of the Ming dynasty as a center of defense against coastal pirates. Its prosperity was due to its deepwater sheltered harbor, that supplanted nearby Quanzhou, the port that had been the center of the maritime trade with the Indies.
In the mid-17th century, Xiamen and Gulangyu Island became a stronghold of Zheng Chenggong, known in the West as Koxinga, a Ming loyalist who held out against the Manchu invaders until being driven to Taiwan. Born in Japan to a Chinese pirate father and a Japanese mother, Zheng became allied with holdout Ming princes in the south who hoped for a restoration. He built up a resistance force of some 7,000 junks and a mixed force of three-quarters of a million troops and pirates. In 1661 he drove the Dutch from Taiwan and set up another base there, before his death in 1662.
After the Opium Wars Xiamen became one of the first treaty ports to be opened to foreign trade and settlement following the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. Gulangyu Island was transformed into an international settlement, where many Victorian and Neoclassical style buildings still survive. The city’s prosperity was due both to trade and to wealth sent back by Xiamen’s substantial emigrant community of overseas Chinese.