Rice Versus Wheat - Psychologists Say That Explains Why Communism Is Popular In China
    By News Staff | May 11th 2014 09:52 AM | 13 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments

    The anti-wheat movement is a popular health fad in America and critics of that staple now have a new weapon in their culture war - ditching it makes people more cooperative. And they explain Genghis Khan and Mao.

    Defenders of wheat have their own ammunition - rice leads to despotism and communism. Cultural psychologists writing in Science claim that they can explain psychological differences between the people of northern and southern China mirror and also the differences between community-oriented East Asia and the more individualistic Western world - 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 rice farming 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."

    Yes, the authors declare that it is simplistic to think of a billion people as a single culture so they break it into two. And then say the food is changing how they think. The team speculates that the methods of cooperative rice farming – common to southern China forever – 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.

    That's why the Great Wall of China is on the river bank. 

    Well, no it isn't.

    And the south has had plenty of aggressive wars - but Genghis Khan has a good public relations campaign even today because the wall to keep his Mongol hordes from looting China makes him famous. However, if you visit Mongolia today, they are far less militant and aggressive than Chinese on the coast. These distinctions are oddly modern geopolitical. If you go back 700 years in Europe, you can make the same broad claims about the difference between Germans and French, except there was no France and Germany. China has 400 distinct dialects and a geography that, in the past, even the rulers in China were unclear about.

    "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.

    There is a culture war between subscription journals and open access, with legacy journals charging that open access and its editorial review and peer review lite policies lead to less rigorous papers being stamped with peer review. Claiming that rice and wheat created different psychological make-ups in people is a sign that legacy peer review isn't all that great.

    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 idea 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."

    Presto, a cultural psychology hypothesis is born.

    After three years in China doing odd jobs, he went back as a University of Virginia 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.

    Rice farming makes people more inclined to accept despots - that explains imperial Japan as well.

    He dug into anthropologiy 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.

    It will be interesting to see if this idea catches on - hopefully more scientists will learn to start using the word 'theory' correctly also.


    Growing rice or wheat shouldn't matter as much in the U.S. because I think agriculture makes up less than 2% of the labor force (Wikipedia). In addition, instead of having a community farm, the farms in the U.S. are industrial large farms with advanced irrigation systems. That means less people are affected by the psychological differences between rice and wheat. The only effect people has is in choosing one over the other at the supermarkets -> their work-life psyche should be studied in the form of the service sector.

    The research might be relevant during periods of subsistence agriculture and small community and family farming and the resulting psyche and culture that came from it through many generations of evolution.

    China has factory farms that employ city-sized populations. The imagery of individual people in China farming on some local field isn't really applicable in other country, though both cater to that legacy of agriculture (as does France, etc.)
    > 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.

    Wow! What a scholar! Him being the first to discover this really makes his research unique.

    Seriously, the whole "rice makes people collective" thing has been done to death. Just look at Japan.

    More of a population factor, this cultural division, than what foodstuffs are consumed I'm guessing. If we crowd enough people into overpopulated slumburgs, we see less independent thinking and more movement to Leftist thinking every time. Thus the Democrats easily control the largest, most susceptible to blight, cities in the U.S., while the Republicans retain the areas with independent thinkers and freedom-lovers.

    Good thing we kicked King George out before we got all over-populous. Keeping him out? Looks like that's not going to be an easy task.

    My father's family is Okinawan and my mother's family is main island Japanese. The Okinawan staple starch is the sweet potato, while the Japaneses staple is rice. This may explain personality differences between the two peoples--and my parents. The lack of a strong work ethic in Okinawa can be explained by the fact that the sweet potato requires little maintenance compared to rice. The sweet potato will grow regardless of how hard one works, which is not true of rice. The stereotypes of the lazy Okinawan and the hard working Japanese are built on a strong element of truth.

    What about corn? As long as you are making stereotypes about entire cultures, you might as well blame them lazy Mexicans on corn. Plant it in the spring, walk through and make sure it's knee high by the 4th of July, and then go out again and harvest.

    Put another way, Okinawans have found a way to get the food they need and still have a lot of time to relax and enjoy life. The Japanese are more like worker ants. I don't see that second one as being so great.
    My point about stereotyping was that it comes out of a real cultural difference and was not meant to be derogating. I shouldn't have used the judgmental terms of "lazy" and "hard working" but I struggle with exorcising my Japanese mother's attitude from my consciousness. I heartily agree with your last statements, as I would prefer to identify with my father's people more than my mother's.


    "Plant it in the spring, walk through and make sure it's knee high by the 4th of July, and then go out again and harvest."

    Not really, Corn needs as much care as a professional golfing green in order to get a edible yield. The main thing was irrigation.

    What strikes me about this study is all they did, in the end, was write down stereotypes. 

    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    all they did, in the end, was write down stereotypes.
    And if they haven’t gone an’ picked the wrong doggone stereotypes!  (To be said in a stereotypical “American” accent from a film that got wet crossing the Atlantic.)

    During the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912), so my impression goes, it was the North of China that was tied up by proximity to the seat of empire, and folks got more entrepreneurial the further south one went.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    A little bit of argument (or not) about stereotyping?  How about this?

    Alas, later versions have a bit of stereotying.  A singin’ and dancin’ version with Hoagy Carmichael and Dorothy Dandridge ▶ Hoagy Carmichael&Dorothy Dandridge "Lazy Bones" 1941 - YouTube I find a bit edgy regarding the supporting dancer, while Paul Robeson’s beautiful semi-classical version  ▶ Paul Robeson "Lazy bones" - YouTube does slip into corny pronunciation in places.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Genghis Khan and Mao?  The Mongols could hardly be called rice-eaters, being north of China. 
    As for people being more collective as opposed to individualistic, that does nothing to exonerate the toxic effects of Marxist ideology.   Bertrand Russell had the measure of that.

    (1) He gave two succinct reasons for opposing the philosophy of Karl Marx: "one, that he was muddle-headed; and the other, that his thinking was almost entirely inspired by hatred."

    Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Denonn, eds., The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell  1903-1959, Simon&Schuster, New York, 1961, p. 479.

    (2) He saw it in action, meeting Lenin in person on a visit to Moscow in 1920.  His verdict?  That the Soviet state was "an asylum of homicidal lunatics where the warders are the worst." 

    Ronald W. Clark, The Life of Bertrand Russell, Knopf, New York 1976, p.382.

    Too simplistic. Fails the millet test, I think.

    Fails the millet test
    Precisely — but don’t confuse them with facts!

    Here is the Wine Song from the film Red Sorghum.  The wine in question is made from Sorghum bicolor.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England