In 1958, at an island off the coast of China, shells rained from the skies.

Inhabitants were terrified. Shells were simultaneously loaded with explosives, shrapnel, and propaganda leaflets requesting the surrender of the island and the removal of US troops.

This was the third time they’ve been invaded in 9 years. And they could see no end to it.


Kinmen Island was a territory of the Republic of China (whose government now resides in Taiwan) located just 1.2 miles from the coast of China. 1 The larger island was an important strategic position for both China (the People’s Liberation Army) and Taiwan (the Republic of China).

At this time, the PLA and ROC were in civil war. 2 The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was backed by Communist Mao Zedong. The Republic of China (ROC) was backed by Chiang Kai-Shek and the United States.

As part of his strategy to unite China and its strategic location, Mao wanted the island for himself. So he launched a campaign that would last 9 years against its inhabitants. Just 1.2 miles away, he invaded.

Before Bombardment

As a strategic foothold, Kinmen was hotly contested. China had sent its soldiers there before: once in 1949 and again in 1954. Kinmen was a hotspot for the Chinese Civil War, housing 3 battles in that 9 year period. By 1958, the citizens likely imagined no end to war.

But before all of this started, the United States sought to curb Communist influence at every angle. They knew the importance of Kinmen to China, so they gave the ROC thousands of landmines, technologically advanced tanks, and elaborate series’ of tunnels and caves dug deep within the massive mountain peaking from the northeastern corner of the island.

When Kaimen Island received word that attack was imminent, they took action. Tunnels and caves were reinforced. Tanks were deployed. Land mines were planted all around the island.

Accidentally Botching an Invasion

China threw nearly 10,000 people upon the island at the dead of night. They believed the victory would be swift.

They were wrong. An accidental land mine triggering cause the ROC to fire illuminating flares, serendipitously revealing the platoons of China.

Taiwanese forces fought back with tooth and nail. But just in case that wasn’t enough, they also used their advanced tank weaponry, landmines, and elaborate systems of tunnels to bewilder China’s army.

The Chinese were forced back to the coast and eliminated. The end result: 3,873 killed, 5,175 captured. The ROC kept their island. 3

The Bear of Kinmen
These tanks are honored as “The Bears of Kinmen” for their role in stopping invasion. Source: Lukacs, CC 3.0

 

The Empty Shell Strategy

The first battle was just a test. This island was still important.

The second time, China invaded surrounding islands and started bombarding Kinmen from August to February 1955. They temporarily backed down due to the US threatening nuclear weapon usage.

Slightly daunted, but persistent, they tried a third time.

August 23, 1958, shells came upon the island like rain, killing many. The island suffered 44 days of constant bombardment.

It only stopped because China ran out of shells, after 2,500 ROC troops (and an unknown number of civilians) were killed. With no more high explosives, they decided to use a new type of “weapon”.

These new shells came in two flavors.The first was launched by artillery and lightly exploded high above the island. The second would land without an explosion, and break itself neatly in two.

Both types held tens of thousands of propaganda leaflets, which showered the island. These empty shells were “carriers” meant exclusively to demoralize the island into giving up the US troops and surrendering China sought to demoralize their opponents with messages of surrender and hopelessness. China hoped to convince tired soldiers and citizens to align themselves with China and dump the US.

Chinese Propaganda
The left text says, “American Imperialists must get out of Taiwan”. The red wall symbolizes China and it says, “Taiwan is part of China. The Chinese must liberate Taiwan” Source: PsyWars

 

In a strange resolution, both sides continued firing non-lethal propaganda shells at each other on alternate days of the week.

They were both exhausted from these constant battles. Neither side wanted more death. So instead, they exchanged the 1950’s equivalent of mean Twitter messages.

Except this equivalent lasted decades. This informal solution continued until the United States and the China began negotiation in 1979.

Mental Triggers of Mass Death

Post-war, shells littered the island, a symbol of oppression and death. While many continued to see them as such, one man saw something else.

Master Wu wandered between towns. A blacksmith by trade, he cut into the shell to decide what type of steel it was. Something about them surprised him… and he wanted more.

So he quickly wandered from village to village. With little money, the citizens couldn’t afford to pay him for services. So he worked out a deal: he would trade his services in metalcraft for bombshells. They agreed. So one by one, shells were removed from the beautiful island scenery of Kinmen. Fear broke, as symbols of death were carried off. Locals felt at peace with their removal.

At his forge, he took the shells and cut into them. Sure enough, every shell had the same superior quality of stainless steel he recognized on the beach. His skill in metalcraft saw this as an opportunity.

So he did what a blacksmith could do.

He used them to create legendary knives.

 

Kinmen blacksmith creating knives

So good were they knives that after the third battle, Kinmen became famous for its cleavers. The blacksmith, Master Wu, became world renowned.

To this day, every new master in the family business is awarded the title of Master Wu. The tradition of turning shells into knives continues, with the third-generation Master Wu still scavenging old shells, turning old fear into new pride. 4


We Live Under Bombardment

We all live under bombardment. The bombs come from the media, from life, from drama, and from expectations we create for ourselves.

It’s inevitable that they fall on us. The real question is: what will we do with it?

 

Enterprising physical goods is one way to turn a bad situation into a good one. This is a hallmark skill for entrepreneurs – and an excellent business case study for Harvard. However, I didn’t write this to help you find business opportunities.

I wrote this so you can apply it to your most trying moments. When the bombs of life come, you choose what to make of them — literally or figuratively.

What We Can Learn From Master Wu and the Citizens of Kinmen

Opportunity comes in a myriad of shapes and sizes. Sometimes it comes in a threatening form.

While many of us will never see battle, we will be tested and tried. When those times come, take a step back. Recognize that you feel threatened, and recognize that maybe there’s a damn good reason for it.

If it puts you in immediate danger, move yourself out of the way. Get out of the blast zone, as the military would say. Maybe that fear is saving your life.

But once the immediate danger has passed, you’ll have an opportunity to deal with the raw material. You can make its memory something ugly and dangerous, or you can make it something meaningful, useful, and proud. You can avoid it forever and live in fear, or you can accept the circumstances and make them your strength.

The shells around Kinmen Island could have become a cultural icon of strife and oppression. it’s easy to see how unexploded shells littering your island may “trigger” you. Its citizens could proclaim how injust it was that their island was so hotly contested, and how needless this all was, and how life is so damn unfair.

Would they be within their right? Sure. But then they live in misery and in a constant state of blaming.

Instead, they chose to accept it happened. They let those symbols become commerce and their most famous commodity. It became a badge of honor — legendary cleavers sought after by the most esteemed chefs and knife connoisseurs around the world.

When life gave them bombshells, they made sharp knives.

What will the memories of your struggles become? 5

Footnotes

  1. That’s 2 km for metric system users/
  2. To this day, Taiwan and China are STILL at odds. China claims Taiwan is part of China. Most Taiwanese suggest they are an independent nation.
  3. Body count is from “古寧頭之役的回顧”四海一家軍事網Archived from the original on June 8, 2004
  4. They’re currently in the 3rd generation of family ownership. Some sources list him as “Maestro Wu
  5. Like battles and weird tactics? You can read about the 1949 Battle of Guningtou and the 1954 First Taiwan Strait Crisis on Wikipedia