Why China’s Rice Farmers Are Less Confrontational Than Wheat Farmers


Broadly speaking, when it comes to agriculture, China can be divided into two regions: the wheat-growing lands of the north and the rice-growing lands of the south. China is currently the world’s largest producer of both grains.

This agricultural divide is quite evident in regional diets. In the north, the main carbs of choice are buns and noodles fashioned out of wheat. Pulled noodles, knife-shaved noodles, and flatbreads all hail from up north. In the south, dishes are most often paired with rice. Even the noodles in the south are made with rice.

Not only does agriculture predict what sort of foods people eat, but according to Thomas Talhelm, it also forecasts behavior. An assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Talhelm is the author of the “rice theory,” which states that people who grow up in rice-farming areas are more collectivist than people from wheat-producing places. His findings were published in Science in 2014.

So, what does that mean?

“People in wheat-farming regions are more individualistic whereas people in the rice areas have an interdependent culture,” Talhelm says.

He noticed the cultural differences between the two regions after living in both northern and southern China.

“The behaviors I was seeing were really different,” he says. “In the south, when people accidently bumped into me in the grocery store, they would tense up, look at the floor, and move away quietly. They were focused on avoiding conflict.”

People in the north, on the other hand, were more apt to speak their mind. Once, he and his friends were at a museum in the province of Harbin, in the far north corridor of China, when the curator publicly commended his friend’s Chinese skills. She then looked at Talhelm and said, bluntly: “Your Chinese is better.”

Talhelm surveyed over 1,000 people in six provinces in both north and south China and found that Northerners tended to be more analytic and brash whereas Southerners were more holistic and loyal to their relationships.

Talhelm’s data suggests that the farming methodologies of each grain have contributed to these personality developments in each region.

“For rice farming, the two big things are irrigation and labor,” Talhelm says. “It’s much beyond the capabilities for a single family.”

Rice farming requires twice as much labor than wheat, which elicits more cooperation. Farmers have more incentives to work together and over time, that makes rice farmers more conflict-averse. Wheat farming, on the other hand, relies on rainfall instead of irrigation. Coordination between communities isn’t as important.

“It’s not that people in the rice region like people more,” Talhelm stresses. “It’s not even positive emotions. If anything, I would predict the opposite. In individualistic cultures like in the United States, we tend to report more warm feelings toward one other than in places like Japan. That’s because we have more relationship mobility; we’re not stuck with people we don’t like.”

Talhelm also reports that divorce rates are lower in the rice-growing regions. Because of the interdependent nature of rice cultures, people have tighter social networks and it’s more difficult to exit unsatisfying relationships.

“Friendships aren’t so easily shifted,” he says.

To test his theory, Talhelm went to Starbucks stores in both the north and south of China and pushed chairs together in the aisles. He kept tabs on who moved the chairs and who simply navigated around the chairs.

“In the north, 20 percent of people moved the chairs. In the south, in places like Guangdong and Hong Kong, only 4 percent moved the chairs,” he says.

In another experiment, he simply counted how many people were alone in the stores, and found out that Northerners were more likely to be alone than their Southern counterparts.

“In north, 35 percent of people were alone,” he says. “It was 25 percent in the south.”

This is a phenomenon that extends beyond China. Talhelm notes that in the antebellum United States, slaves in rice-growing areas like South Carolina and Georgia were valued more highly, and may have been more collectivistic because of their work with rice.

Talhelm repeated his study in India, where he found the same behavior divided among the wheat communities and the rice-farming regions in the west and east, respectively. His findings were consistent with that of China; people from the rice territories were generally less confrontational than those from the north.



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