'Rice theory' explains north-south China cultural differences, study shows

May 08, 2014
Credit: Earth100/Wikipeidia

A new cultural psychology study has found that psychological differences between the people of northern and southern China mirror the differences between community-oriented East Asia and the more individualistic Western world – and the differences seem to have come about because southern China has grown rice for thousands of years, whereas the north has grown wheat.

"It's easy to think of China as a single culture, but we found that China has very distinct northern and southern psychological cultures and that southern China's history of can explain why people in southern China are more interdependent than people in the wheat-growing north," said Thomas Talhelm, a University of Virginia Ph.D. student in cultural psychology and the study's lead author. He calls it the "rice theory."

The findings appear in the May 9 issue of the journal Science.

Talhelm and his co-authors at universities in China and Michigan propose that the methods of cooperative rice farming – common to southern China for generations – make the culture in that region interdependent, while people in the wheat-growing north are more individualistic, a reflection of the independent form of farming practiced there over hundreds of years.

"The data suggests that legacies of farming are continuing to affect people in the modern world," Talhelm said. "It has resulted in two distinct cultural psychologies that mirror the differences between East Asia and the West."

According to Talhelm, Chinese people have long been aware of cultural differences between the north region and the southern, which are divided by the Yangtze River – the largest river in China, flowing west to east across the vast country. People in the north are thought to be more aggressive and independent, while people to the south are considered more cooperative and interdependent.

"This has sometimes been attributed to different climates – warmer in the south, colder in the north – which certainly affects agriculture, but it appears to be more related to what Chinese people have been growing for thousands of years," Talhelm said.

He notes that rice farming is extremely labor-intensive, requiring about twice the number of hours from planting to harvest as does wheat. And because most rice is grown on irrigated land, requiring the sharing of water and the building of dikes and canals that constantly require maintenance, rice farmers must work together to develop and maintain an infrastructure upon which all depend. This, Talhelm argues, has led to the interdependent culture in the southern region.

Wheat, on the other hand, is grown on dry land, relying on rain for moisture. Farmers are able to depend more on themselves, leading to more of an independent mindset that permeates northern Chinese culture.

Talhelm developed his rice theory after living in China for four years. He first went to the country in 2007 as a high school English teacher in Guangzhou, in the rice-growing south.

A year later, he moved to Beijing, in the north. On his first trip there, he noticed that people were more outgoing and individualistic than in the south.

"I noticed it first when a museum curator told me my Chinese was clearly better than my roommate's," Talhelm said. "The curator was being direct and a little less concerned about how her statement might make us feel."

After three years in China, including time as a journalist, he later went back as a U.Va. doctoral student on a Fulbright scholarship.

"I was pretty sure the differences I was seeing were real, but I had no idea why northern and southern China were so different – where did these differences come from?" Talhelm asked.

He soon found that the Yangtze was an important cultural divider in China. "I found out that the Yangtze River helped divide dialects in China, and I soon learned that the Yangtze also roughly divides rice farming and wheat farming," he said.

He dug into anthropologists' accounts of pre-modern rice and wheat villages and realized that they might account for the different mindsets, carried forward from an agrarian past into modernity.

"The idea is that rice provides economic incentives to cooperate, and over many generations, those cultures become more interdependent, whereas societies that do not have to depend on each other as much have the freedom of individualism," Talhelm said.

He went about investigating this with his Chinese colleagues by conducting psychological studies of the thought styles of 1,162 Han Chinese college students in the north and south and in counties at the borders of the rice-wheat divide.

They found through a series of tests that northern Chinese were indeed more individualistic and analytic-thinking – more similar to Westerners – while southerners were interdependent, holistic-thinking and fiercely loyal to friends, as psychological testing has shown is common in other rice-growing East Asian nations, such as Japan and Korea.

The study was conducted in six Chinese cities: Beijing in the north; Fujian in the southeast; Guangdong in the south; Yunnan in the southwest; Sichuan in the west central; and Liaoning in the northeast.

Talhelm said that one of the most striking findings was that counties on the north-south border – just across the Yangtze River from each other – exhibited the same north/south psychological characteristics as areas much more distantly separated north and south.

"I think the rice theory provides some insight to why the rice-growing regions of East Asia are less individualistic than the Western world or northern China, even with their wealth and modernization," Talhelm said.

He expects to complete his Ph.D. next year, and this year received an Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Research Fellowship from U.Va.'s Office of the Vice President for Research and the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences for an in-depth study of people from the rice-wheat border in China's Anhui province.

Explore further: US: Rice is safe, despite small levels of arsenic

More information: "Large-Scale Psychological Differences Within China Explained by Rice Versus Wheat Agriculture," by T. Talhelm et al. Science, 2014.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

EU tightens control of Chinese rice over GM fears

Nov 15, 2011

The European Union has tightened controls on imports of Chinese rice products after a growing number of shipments were contaminated by unauthorised genetically-modified rice, the EU said Tuesday.

New rice contamination reported in China

May 21, 2013

Authorities are investigating rice mills in southern China following tests that found almost half of the staple grain in one of the country's largest cities was contaminated with a toxic metal.

Recommended for you

Decoding ethnic labels

Jul 30, 2014

If you are of Latin American descent, do you call yourself Chicano? Latino? Hispanic?

Local education politics 'far from dead'

Jul 29, 2014

Teach for America, known for recruiting teachers, is also setting its sights on capturing school board seats across the nation. Surprisingly, however, political candidates from the program aren't just pushing ...

First grade reading suffers in segregated schools

Jul 29, 2014

A groundbreaking study from the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) has found that African-American students in first grade experience smaller gains in reading when they attend segregated schools—but the ...

Why aren't consumers buying remanufactured products?

Jul 29, 2014

Firms looking to increase market share of remanufactured consumer products will have to overcome a big barrier to do so, according to a recent study from the Penn State Smeal College of Business. Findings from faculty members ...

Expecting to teach enhances learning, recall

Jul 29, 2014

People learn better and recall more when given the impression that they will soon have to teach newly acquired material to someone else, suggests new research from Washington University in St. Louis.

User comments : 13

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

JVK
1 / 5 (6) May 08, 2014
Nutrient-dependent pheromone-controlled ecological adaptations: from atoms to ecosystems

http://figshare.c...s/994281

This atoms to ecosystems model of ecological adaptations links nutrient-dependent epigenetic effects on base pairs and amino acid substitutions to pheromone-controlled changes in the microRNA / messenger RNA balance and chromosomal rearrangements. The nutrient-dependent pheromone-controlled changes are required for the thermodynamic regulation of intracellular signaling, which enables biophysically constrained nutrient-dependent protein folding; experience-dependent receptor-mediated behaviors, and organism-level thermoregulation in ever-changing ecological niches and social niches. Nutrient-dependent pheromone-controlled ecological, social, neurogenic and socio-cognitive niche construction are manifested in increasing organismal complexity in species from microbes to man.
Pejico
May 08, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
JVK
1 / 5 (5) May 08, 2014
See also the Perspective: Rice, Psychology, and Innovation at http://www.scienc....summary

Excerpt: "Long after their ecological causes have become irrelevant, these cultural psychologies and institutions continue to influence rates of innovation, the formation of new institutions, and the success of immigrants in new lands."

My comment: Ecological variation and ecological, social, neurogenic, and socio-cognitive niche construction manifested in ecological adaptations described here as differences in behavior were also linked to differences in morphology in the mouse-to-human model of nutrient-dependent base pair changes and amino acid substitutions that led to differences in hair, teeth, sweat, and mammary tissue in a population that arose in central China ~30K years ago. See for review: http://www.ncbi.n...24693353

Ecological causes only become irrelevant to social scientists who want to keep touting cultural evolution.
betterexists
1 / 5 (3) May 09, 2014
Did this DUMB Researcher hear about About 0°C Reaching (In Winters) Punjab, India where they use Big Turbans? Then, Come Down to the Hottest Regions of South where...then, try to advise People of Other Religions to Adorn them.... EXCEPT during some Ceremonies!
Punjab FEEDS India with 20% of National Wheat & The World with 2% GLOBAL Wheat Production....Also, a Well Modernized State...Including Rear Cases of Child Molestations (Immigrated to U.S 2 to 3 Centuries Back?) Like in ZSXhittty Waste!
Try Punjab, Wikipedia
Earthquakes like in Gujrat where you have to rebuild every 2 decades have great modernization too!
betterexists
1 / 5 (2) May 09, 2014
Don't Try to Inundate with B.S Scientific Terms when Everything is Crystal Clear without Them. Take Chile Too Prone to Frequent Earthquakes & Argentina sitting at the Southernmost End of S.America eventhough it is NOT in as much horrible situation as Canada & Alaska Weather-wise! Map Cheats to some extent.
I think the Federal Govt. Pays each Alaskan $30,000 Annually to live there. I MAY BE WRONG! Do they live in Florida in Winters OR WHAT?
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (3) May 09, 2014
""The data suggests that legacies of farming are continuing to affect people in the modern world," "
It helps to keep the farmers poor, in the mud and easy to control by the state.
Rice is grown in the US south and in California with much less manual labor ( but likely some Manuel labor).
betterexists
1 / 5 (1) May 09, 2014
The problem is not going high tech in Agriculture; People of Many nations have Agriculture as their Prime vocation....each person owning less than 100 acres of land, sometimes the govt. itself imposing such limits. Alternative is to turn to Heavy Industries, but it has several impediments.
1) People do not want to leave their small villages which is certain to follow the above endeavor.
2) Pollution that will occur by resorting to heavy industries.
3) Tropical nations can live happily with out too much modernisation!
4) Focusing on Industry & moving away from PRIMITIVE Agriculture REQUIRES a lot of Education....Setting up Factories....Getting Rid of Old ones when New Type of Goods start Selling in the Market!5) OLD LIFE WILL BE DISTURBED Completely....with nothing that much useful in return for Tropical Nations. Things will change when Nuclear Fusion Succeeds; When Quantum Computer will be Invented; When Embryonic Stem Cells will be UTILISED for the Betterment of the HEALTH of People!
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (2) May 09, 2014
OLD LIFE WILL BE DISTURBED Completely....with nothing that much useful in return for Tropical Nations.


Says who?

How many people in the tropics want to slog through rice paddies in 40C heat?

Rice terraces in Philippines are deteriorate bacause the children dont' want the 'old life'.
So the govt should force people to live the 'old life' like they do in North Korea and Cuba?
betterexists
5 / 5 (1) May 09, 2014
If you do not know it, People Love Old Life...Except the Young, Well Educated & Rich!
EVERYONE WANTS EVERYTHING without losing ANYTHING...Culture, calm life ...whatever!
YOU CAN'T HAVE BOTH!
OLD LIFE WILL BE DISTURBED Completely....with nothing that much useful in return for Tropical Nations.


Says who?

How many people in the tropics want to slog through rice paddies in 40C heat?

Rice terraces in Philippines are deteriorate bacause the children dont' want the 'old life'.
So the govt should force people to live the 'old life' like they do in North Korea and Cuba?

betterexists
3 / 5 (1) May 09, 2014
Take Highways Which Alone can sustain Heavy Industries...with Trucks, Whatever! And BRIDGES over Rivers...Only problem is that They just Eradicate ALL VILLAGES from the maps of the Nations. Nice to have Everything...WITHOUT LOSING ANYTHING! Only in Temperate countries or in N. America where they got rid of Natives that were earlier constantly fighting the Tornadoes, Hurricanes & Earthquakes could they build HIGHWAYS Over the Shoulders of BLACKS & LATINOS! Now, They are Burden to current locals![ Tough job to build Highways & Bridges Elsewhere.q]
OLD LIFE WILL BE DISTURBED Completely....with nothing that much useful in return for Tropical Nations.


Says who?

How many people in the tropics want to slog through rice paddies in 40C heat?

Rice terraces in Philippines are deteriorate bacause the children dont' want the 'old life'.
So the govt should force people to live the 'old life' like they do in North Korea and Cuba?

Vesparado
4 / 5 (1) May 09, 2014
Didn't Fernand Braudel say this about 30 years ago in "Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I: The Structure of Everyday Life (Civilization & Capitalism)? Seems to me that his analysis was many faceted; i.e., he considered food and drink, dress and housing, demography and family structure, energy and technology, money and credit, and the growth of towns --- all to the end that various "cultures" make early, "deep" choices which affect them forever.
betterexists
3 / 5 (1) May 09, 2014
Franklin Dam Controversy
Dam in Patagonia Outrages Chileans
Flood of Protest hits Indian dams
Burmese protest China-backed dam project
Kayapo Indians dance at anti-dam protest ...Belo Monte dam in Brazil
Belo Monte Dam Protested in Europe
Site C dam Protesters descend on Victoria...
The Borneo Project Stop the Dams!
Keeps on going on Google Search.
OLD LIFE WILL BE DISTURBED Completely....with nothing that much useful in return for Tropical Nations.


Says who?

How many people in the tropics want to slog through rice paddies in 40C heat?

Rice terraces in Philippines are deteriorate bacause the children dont' want the 'old life'.
So the govt should force people to live the 'old life' like they do in North Korea and Cuba?
betterexists
not rated yet May 09, 2014
Only Solution:
I Think the Temperate Nations will GAIN much if the Entire World gets Industrialized!
So, INSTEAD OF INDULGING IN WARS....
It is in the Interest of the INDUSTRIALIZED, TEMPERATE Nations to SACRIFISE MOMENTARILY & get the world more Industrialized for at least a decade!
IT IS A GARBAGE DREAM because CAPITALISM Demands to Rule Over Others...not to sacrifise...which is just a lesson on morals!
betterexists
not rated yet May 11, 2014
Second Largest Nation in the World, Canada has only 35M Population while India which is Only 7th Largest in the world has 1244M Population. How Precarious the Life is in the Temperate Countries!