For centuries, Kinmen suffered the consequences of deforestation. A lack of trees meant strong winds lifted soil from fields and dumped it in ponds, hampering agriculture and exacerbating the shortage of fresh water. Islanders have traditionally blamed Koxinga for their predicament, saying he turned their woods into the fleet which carried him and his followers to Taiwan. In fact the problem is much older. From the 14th century onward, local people were cutting down trees so they could boil seawater to obtain salt. The problem wasn’t rectified until well after World War II when soldiers were put to work planting saplings.
Because of the sandstorms bedevilling Kinmen, the archipelago’s inhabitants prayed to their gods for relief and began erecting lion-spirit statues to negate the winds sometime before 1400. Several were destroyed by communist shells in the 1950s but soon replaced. Almost all take the form of a lion upright on his hind legs, ranging in height from 22cm to 3.8m.
Particularly splendid wind lions can be found in Beishan and Shanhou while the one in Guanao near Mashan has become famous on account of his large penis. The majority of Kinmen’s 69 wind lions are found in the north and east parts of the main island; most are on the northeastern edge of the villages they protect and face north or northeast. It’s no coincidence that this is the direction from which winds blow, almost non stop, between September and May.
Wind lions aren’t found anywhere else in the ROC and they bear little resemblance to the playful-looking lions that guard the entrances of Taiwanese temples. Most are fierce-looking sentinels located in the gustiest parts of several villages. Many were hewn from granite but a few are cement or clay. Several wear superhero-type red capes, donated by the faithful who worry the lions will shiver during gales.
Over time, Kinmen’s wind lions have become generalist deities. In addition to countering the wind, villagers ask them for prosperity, baby boys, abundant harvests and protection from demons believed to cause mayhem. They’re also believed to repel termites, useful given the amount of wood in Kinmen’s traditional buildings. Like land gods, wind lions have birthdays which are celebrated with incense and prayers. Villagers also make offerings at the end of weddings and funerals. Not surprisingly, wind-lion models are a popular souvenir.