This article, a case study of the Han Interpreter (tongshi) Wu Feng, illustrates the evolution of the interpreter system implemented by the Qing court among the shufan (literally "cooked/cultivated" savages, plains aborigines) and huafan (naturalized aborigines) in Taiwan. The article is also an empirical study of how migrant ethnic groups established social order on the Qing imperial periphery.
In the early eighteenth century, the Qing court implemented an aboriginal frontier policy in upland areas of Taiwan. In theory, the policy was an expression of court concern about conflicts between aborigines and Han settlers who occupied and began to cultivate aboriginal lands. In practice, the demarcation of the aboriginal boundary failed to serve its purpose of deterring trespassers. Opportunities for trade with the aborigines beyond the frontier meant that the border never became an effective barrier. Those who crossed the boundary even took advantage of the imperial interpreter system to establish a legal social order outside the Qing boundary. This contributed to the increasing power of Han interpreters along the aboriginal frontier.
Interaction among the ethnic groups in the aboriginal frontier was unstable and complex. The relationship between the Han trespassers and Alishan aborigines fluctuated between compromise and confrontation, between peaceful landlord-tenant coexistence and violent clashes. In the face of competition for living space, the Han in the mountain areas tried to foster greater unity against the aborigines by promoting the cult of Interpreter Wu Feng. Hence, the emergence and spread of the Wu Feng cult was a reflection of the power struggle between the Han and the aborigines in the nineteenth century. Examining the process of village formation process in the upland region of Chiayi reveals how multiple mechanisms played a role in the establishment of social order in the frontier region. Among these mechanisms was the landlord-tenant relationship between the Alishan aborigines and the Han, facilitated by the Interpreter system as well as the anti-aboriginal legends about Wu Feng.