In traditional Taiwanese society, irrigation systems, including canals and ponds, were created as private property and shared by different communities. Usually, individuals or groups of landlords provided the capital for building such irrigation facilities (Chang, 1983; Chen, 2009; Tsai, 1999). These landlords were titled as canal owners, who owned the irrigation facilities and water. By signing contracts, they transferred the rights of water accessibility to farmers, who became canal tenants. Based on such water tenancy, a hierarchical framework of water management was formed (Chen, 2009). At the top of the hierarchy, canal holders were responsible for financial support of irrigation repair; at the bottom of the hierarchy, canal tenants paid fixed amounts of grain crops annually, a so-called ‘water tax,’ in exchange for secure water use. In this hierarchical structure, a middle position was fulfilled by canal managers, who were in charge of canal maintenance and water allocation. Compensated by the water tax, the positions of canal managers were also regarded as part of the water property and could be transacted (Liao, 1985).
Due to this hierarchical tenancy framework, it is complicated to define geographic distribution of traditional irrigation property. For an irrigation system, its service area was associated with residence of its interested parties, including canal owners, managers and tenants as mentioned above. With different rights and duties, each interested party had a dynamic geographical relation with irrigation water. Generally, canal tenants and managers lived adjacent to irrigation areas, because they held major responsibilities of water maintenance. In contrast, canal owners might live in town areas and exert control over irrigation operations remotely, since they were mainly concerned with the annual water tax and might not really participated in irrigation field work (Li, Ku, & Chuang, 2009). In reality, each irrigation system had its unique geographic pattern of ownership distribution, depending on various scales and stakeholder partnerships.
However, when Taiwan was ruled by the Ching Empire (1683–1895), comprehensive irrigation surveys and mappings were never done by the government.2 As irrigation affairs were dominated by the private sector, details of irrigation water ownership and tenancy relations were primarily recorded by civil contracts, which were textually based (Chen, 2009). Only when water disputes occurred, maps were made by official surveyors, and such cases were very limited.3 Consequently, a geographic overview of the existing irrigation systems in Taiwan was lacking, leading to the challenge for the Japanese to establish a national database of local irrigation resources at the onset of colonization.
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In 18th century Taichung and Fengyuan, eight Hakka families negotiated the novel exchange of water for land with the area's indigenous people. The Hakka would lend their expertise to the building of canals for shared use in the shadow of declining deer herds, and the Pazeh would, in exchange, transfer ownership of tribal land to the Hakka families (actually single men of eight surname groups). In this case, many of the Pazeh landlords owned land that was further from their village or was less ideal for wet farming. This led to both the rise of fruit orchards (many still exist in the areas between Daya and Shigang) and also regional ethnic strife in central Taiwan as the imbalance led some groups to a. move to Puli and Milan, b. resort to violence, c. seek out foreign missionaries for political leverage. It was also an excellent example of grassroots interethnic diplomacy that really highlights the unique dynamism of ethnic relations in Qing era Taiwan._______________________
When the Japanese reconfigured the irrigation and water systems of Taiwan, they also played a role in redefining ethnic divisions by removing prior ethnic delineations along water boundaries.
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