The southwestern coastal region of Taiwan 台灣 is salt country. From Bùdài 布袋 in Chiayi 嘉義 down through Běimén 北門, Jiāngjūn 將軍, and Qīgǔ 七股 in Tainan 台南, an incredible expanse of manmade salt evaporation ponds sprawl across a completely flat and almost featureless landscape, much of it reclaimed from the briny lagoons that line the coast. Salt has been produced here for more than three centuries by controlling the flow of seawater with artificial enclosures and letting the strong tropical sun do the rest. Taiwan’s accession to the WTO in 2002 doomed the industry and all remaining salterns (or salt fields, if you like) were decommissioned that same year. This led to the abandonment of the unique Qingkunshen Fan-Shaped Saltern 青鯤鯓扇形鹽田, now a surreal reminder of the history of salt production in southern Taiwan 台灣.
Qingkunshen1 dates back to 1975, making it the youngest saltern in the area and the only one developed under the control of the Kuomintang. Its name is derived from Qingkunshen 青鯤鯓, the fishing village immediately to the south, notable for being the westernmost settlement on the island of Taiwan. Although formally located in Jiāngjūn 將軍, the 716 hectares fan-shaped saltern was administered from the Qigu Saltworks 七股鹽場 in neighbouring Qīgǔ 七股, where you will now find the Taiwan Salt Museum 臺灣鹽博物館 and Qigu Salt Mountain 七股鹽山2.
Salt—along with tobacco, alcohol, opium, and camphor, among others—was one of the main trades controlled through the monopoly system during the Japanese colonial era. The KMT maintained the lucrative monopoly system after taking over Taiwan—it was a significant source of funding for the incipient colonial regime. Salt fields were exempt from land reform policies implemented in the years after the war and salt production continued under the aegis of the state-owned Taiwan Salt Company 台鹽公司. Additionally, the KMT imposed a controversial salt tax on consumers3 that was only abolished decades later in 1977, two years after the development of Qingkunshen.
The fan-shaped4 design of the Qingkunshen salt field is completely unique—nowhere else in Taiwan will you find such a plan. The evaporation ponds extend outward from a tiny nub of land that once housed the salt workers’ dormitory building, which now lies in ruins (not picture here). Navigation channels run along both sides of the fan, allowing local fishermen access to the sea. The overall plan is difficult to discern from ground level—which has made this salt field a popular destination for drone operators. For a taste of Qingkunshen from the air, have a look at Google Maps, these videos here and here, and this set of interactive panoramas.
I visited this part of Taiwan on my first round-the-island bicycle trip in 2013 and returned on scooter in 2014. Initially I had mixed feelings about this part of the country, a manufactured landscape of salt fields and aquaculture ponds stretching as far as the eye can see. Although it is not conventionally beautiful there was something about it that spoke to me on a level beyond language and conscious thought. This is why I chose to return, to see what else I might capture of this strange dreamlike landscape.
Even now I feel as if I am not finished with Qingkunshen. I learned so much while drafting up this post—but this leaves me with more questions than answers. Perhaps some day I will return again—to more fully elucidate the secrets of this obscure place, so remote from modern Taiwan 台灣. If I do I will be sure to update this post. For now, let your imagination do the rest.
- 鯤鯓 is a local term for sandbar typically romanized as “Kunshen”. I suspect this romanization derives from Taiwanese Hokkien as standard Mandarin pinyin for these characters is Kūnní. For the purposes of this post I am using what I’ve seen from official government sources like this one, namely “Kunshen” without any tone markings. Further confusing matters is the fact that Qingkunshen is composed to two different villages for administrative purposes: Kūnní Village 鯤鯓里 and Kūnmíng Village 鯤溟里. As such, you may see reference to any of these on Google Maps and such. By the way, Qingkunshen gets its name from its resemblance to a big, green fish emerging from the sea. ↩
- For an English language overview of these attractions consult the excellent Tainan City Guide. ↩
- I haven’t found a proper source to back this up but my understand of the salt tax is that it was carried over from Mainland China. Japanese monopoly system plus Chinese consumption tax equals big money for the KMT! ↩
- You might start to think that Taiwanese are fans of fan-shaped things—but this is entirely coincidental, I assure you. ↩