This article uses the Anli aboriginal tribe in central Taiwan in the Qing as a case study to demonstrate how ethnic groups used cultural constructions to strengthen their land rights. The Anli initially gained land rights over lands south of the Dajia river not, as is widely believed, because the land was bestowed by the state or the emperor, but on the basis of eighteenth century regulations to encourage land reclamation. The Anli tribe obtained large amounts of land as a result of these policies, leading to a rebellion by other aborigines in central Taiwan in 1731. This year-long rebellion and its suppression substantially altered the power structure in the region, and led to the reappearance of disputes over land rights.
The notion that land had been bestowed by the state or emperor was gradually constructed in the late eighteenth century, at a time when the aborigines were suffering from both internal power conflicts and external pressure from Han Chinese farmers who were expanding towards their land. In the face of litigation from aborigines as well as official policies to protect the aborigines, some Han Chinese also began to claim land rights on the basis of Han-aborigine inter-marriage. These claims were based on the argument that land reclamation increased government tax revenues and the principle that the land had been bestowed by the emperor. Local officials accepted the aborigines’ claims of land rights and adjudicated on the basis of these claims. By the nineteenth century the notion that the land rights of the aborigines had been bestowed by the emperor or the state had become generally accepted.