Legend has it that during the Song dynasty, in Dongluo Village on Fujian Province’s Meizhou Island, there lived a fisherman named Lin Yuan whose sixth daughter Moniang was kind and devoted to her parents. One day, when Lin went out to sea to fish, his boat capsized in a typhoon. Moniang, so anguished she no longer cared for her own safety, swam out to sea to search for her father. She swam until she succumbed to exhaustion and drowned, and her body later washed up on the island of Nangan. Villagers, moved by her filial devotion, held a grand funeral and established a temple to worship her, giving her the respectful name “Matsu” (literally “mother ancestor”), a name which was also given to the islands in her honor. There are two common takes on how the character for “mother” in “Matsu” came to be changed to the character meaning “horse,” as is used today. One is that is that it was changed in order to avoid using the taboo name of the revered Matsu. The other version has it that during the period of military administration the military believed that the “mother ancestor” version was too feminine to reflect the islands’ position as the front line battleground and so had the component of the character “Ma” meaning “mother” changed, replacing it with “horse,” lending the name a more rugged quality.
The oldest traces of settlements in the Matsu Islands were on the island of Dongju, and have been determined to be relics from the Neolithic era. Everyday items such as pottery and utensils dating back to the Song and Yuan periods have been discovered on Nangan, Dongyin and elsewhere. A more specific record of the islands’ history is recorded in Dawang Temple in Renai Village (formerly called Tieban) on Nangan, where a stone tablet bears the inscription "Lin Caixi donated twenty chao.” The chao was paper currency circulated during of the Yuan emperor Kublai Khan,which means that settlements may already have been formed on Nangan at that time.
During the reign of the Qing emperor Jiaqing (1796-1820), residents of Lianjiang County set their eyes on the bountiful marine resources of the Matsu Islands and left their homes to migrate there. Another wave of immigration occurred in the early years of the Republic, with residents of Fujian’s Changle County crossing the sea to settle there. Because fishing was the main source of livelihood the people settled around harbors, resulting in a settlement model of one village to each harbor. This immigration also brought Eastern Min (Fujian) culture and religious beliefs to the islands. When the umbilical cord to mainland China was later cut, the original cultural framework of the Matsu Islands developed its own unique characteristics.
Development in the Matsu Islands development began during the Yuan dynasty. At that time, residents in the area were in close contact with the coast of Fujian on the mainland. At around the time of the Ming and Qing dynasties, Japanese pirates were based there, and during the late Ming and early Qing, coastal fisherman from Fuzhou began to settle there permanently, forming villages based on geographic and blood ties. There are currently 89 surnames among present-day residents, with Chen, Lin, Cao, Wang and Liu being the most common. Matsu is also the only place in all of Taiwan where the Fuzhou dialect (called Pinghua or Mazuhua by local residents) is the primary language.