• Tue
  • Dec 23, 2014
  • Updated: 3:16pm

Why China's wheat-growing north produces individualists and its rice-growing south is clannish

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 May, 2014, 4:14am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 May, 2014, 4:25am

It's a common cultural perception.

Westerners are seen as prizing individualism, while Asians tend to be creatures who lean on their communities.

If you are looking for an answer as to why, there is the "rice theory". Psychologists say the divide may come down to which crops are historically farmed in different regions.

Researchers have found that people from rice-growing southern China are more interdependent and holistic thinkers, while those from the wheat-growing north are more independent and analytical.

The researchers call it "rice theory", and they believe the psychological differences of southern and northern Chinese stem from their ancestors' subsistence techniques - rice farming needs co-operation and planning; wheat farming requires less co-operation between neighbours.

The findings have been reported in the journal Science.

Researchers began with 1,162 Han Chinese students in Beijing, Fujian , Guangdong, Yunnan , Sichuan and Liaoning and used three tests to measure individualism and analytical thinking.

In the first measure, the students were given three objects - a train, a bus and tracks - and asked which two were best grouped together. Those from individualist cultures tended to match categories and group train and bus together, while people from collectivist cultures usually matched based on relationships and group train and tracks.

The second test involved a sociogram. Participants were asked to draw a diagram of their social network with circles depicting themselves and their friends - the bigger the "self" circle, the more individualist the person.

A previous study showed that Americans, who are famously individualistic, tend to draw themselves much larger than their friends, Europeans draw themselves moderately larger, and Japanese people draw themselves slightly smaller.

The last experiment assessed the nepotism, or group loyalty, of the participants. Students were given hypothetical scenarios and asked how they would treat friends and strangers in reaction to helpful or harmful actions. A defining characteristic of holistic culture is that people draw sharp contrasts between friend and stranger.

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

Talhelm and his team concluded that the co-operative nature of rice-growing has cultivated a culture of interdependence, while wheat-growing has cultivated independence.

"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 modernisation," Talhelm said.


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This article is now closed to comments

Lolitta Ho
Far be it for me to decry the "rice theory", but I have serious problems with it. For example, in China, even Northerners, who are supposed to be 'individualistic', can be quite 'clannish'; and Southerners, who are said to be 'clannish', can be 'individualistic'. So there you go -- at least that is an exception that defies this theory.
This research's conclusion is naive, simplistic and wrong. You can try to corelate anything with data: I remember my Statistics professor mention the irrelevant correlation between stork and stock market. Northern Chinese are different from their southern cousins because they are genetically, culturally and lnguistically different not because thye plant and eat wheat ! In fact, southern chinese are more individualistic while norhterners tend to have herd mantality. There are many complex reasons why they are different - e.g. education, values, social norms, etc.
"...the author is a Chinese but refers her own people as creatures..."
The use of the word "creatures" in this context is not pejorative... it's a kind of figure of speech, as in "we are all creatures of habit".... Not self-hating at all.
As for the rice vs wheat thesis, I tend to agree with those commenters who doubt it....
I suspect the conditions under which people must grow their crops shape their culture more strongly than does the type of crop per se. I come originally from Saskatchewan, Canada, which was the original wheat culture there. In that province, where initial survival depended on good relationships with neighbours, there grew up a strong co-operative culture. Now that the conditions of production have changed, that culture is dying.
Please cite the paper not just the journal. It's difficult to go and search for it. Thanks.
the author is a Chinese but refers her own people as creatures. How self hating can you get?
Rice culture/wheat culture could be part of the story. Certainly there is a big difference between the North and the South. You see Zhejiang entrepreneurs in all kind of places - some like where I am in western Qinghai. Not many from North China here. Another big factor has to be how much different regions in China were influenced by Mongol/Manchu culture. The North evidently quite a lot. Guangdong a lot less. Fujian even lesser still. You can tell this in the language. Mandarin is a quite modern language so Chinese characters read in Japanese or Korean aren't much like Mandarin. Japan and Korea came in contact with China before the Yuan dynasty. Cantonese and especially the Minnan language of Fujian are much closer in pronunciation to Japanese and Korean readings of Chinese characters (Kanji, Hanja). What goes for language goes for the culture in general. Another point of departure is the large number of people from the South that left China but maintained some connection to their region. You'll see a lot of Cantonese, Minnan, Hakka etc in Southeast Asia, but not many from North China. You could say Southerners are simultaneously more traditionally Chinese and more outward looking.
What a load of utter rubbish:(
Slow news season already?
Can I get a grant too? Is it also related to other aspects of rural life? Such as care of the dead from unclothing to burning? Unlike field work, that one involves everyone in the village and even a few nearby villages. Helloooo?


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