Chinese wheat eaters vs. rice eaters (speculative)

Angela Meng reports:

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 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.

Here is Talhelm’s home page.  Research summaries are here (interesting).  Links to his research are here, and the wheat paper is here.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Mark Thorson.


Your title is misleading. It's really about wheat growers vs rice growers; their actual diet is irrelevant.

Similar claims have been made about Europe, suggesting that differences in climate and local soil fertility have left their imprint on national cultures.

Wittfogel put forward a theory of "hydraulic despotism:"

The idea is that if you live somewhere with enough rainfall to grow wheat you can just wander away from your community if they start to get on your nerves, but if you need to be part of a complicated irrigation system, you can't be so independent-minded.

Is that true? Beats me ...

For example, when the U.S. took control of California in 1848, English common law about water rights was applied to the Los Angeles River, which proved disastrous. In England, there's plenty of rain, so everybody is allowed to take as much as they want out of the rivers and the people downstream have to take what's left. But there's no shortage of rain in England, so the government doesn't have to get involved much.

So enterprising American farmers moved upriver into the San Fernando Valley and diverted all the LA River water that had traditionally been used by the pueblo of Los Angeles into their irrigation ditches. Eventually, the state supreme court invented some legal theory to reimpose the Spanish water law that allotted the pueblo its fair share to keep it from drying up and vanishing. The more governmentally intrusive Spanish system of riparian rights was much better suited to Southern California's Mediterranean climate.

Australia has similar problems and no spanish example to learn from. As a result it has some mismanaged rivers. But overall both Australia and California are much better governed than Mexico or even Spain, even though our climates are more similar to that of Spain than to England.

At least in Southeast Asia, you can go off by yourself, cut down a patch of forest and grow rice without a complicated irrigation system. Yields aren't terribly high and the crop is dependent on rainfall, but such is the lot of a wheat farmer too.

So the control study will be done in the Po Valley, right?

Malcolm Gladwell put forward a Rice Theory of Chinese prosperity in "Outliers:"

I've often thought Gladwell would make for a good behavioral study on ingratiation. It is one of the most common human behavioral traits, but some people have it in massive quantities. So much so they get very rich telling rich people what they want to hear in a way that rich (and smart) people seldom notice.

Yes, _Outliers_ had some interesting observations and conjectures but they became increasingly implausible as one read through the book, and Gladwell's rice theory (and Talhelm's theory sounds very similar, he even calls it the rice theory) was where I thought Gladwell just plain ran off the rails.

Surely there are many systematic differences between the histories of
North and South China. The faviourite type of grain will influence that
whole history, but that doesn't mean that any difference between North
and South caused by the choice of grain.

I just need to find out which group is more like me so I can quote them as evidence that their crop is a sign of higher intelligence.

while personality and culture distinctions may well be real, they may have other causes beyond the ken of whoever is pushing this rice-wheat theory. For instance this may have to do with Northern China historically being a poorer and more chaotic place than the South.

The river Huanghe is called "China's sorrow" because it often floods large areas killing thousands, destroying crops and displacing the survivors. If in living memory a village nearby got wiped out and government officials gave a finger to the starving survivors, that will get them and people around them start looking out for number one and being skeptical of "collective" and "authority" pretty quickly. On a less drastic note, Huanghe flooding control and Great Wall construction would require lots of peasant corvee labor, and it would likely be the nearby northerners who would be the first to be conscripted by officials for this task. Again, this would be a culturally prominent example of authority being a source of no help and active evil in people's lives.

On the other hand, in the South they don't have lots of natural disasters and no or fewer major projects to work on. So when you think "authority" you would probably think your friendly clan neighborhood association helping you with farming and doing communal clan celebrations, not SOBs dragging you off to slave labor or letting you starve.

Robert Nisbett's book "The Geography of Thought" has some very interesting speculations on East Asian "holistic" thought v. object-oriented Western thinking patterns:

Grammar would play a big role here as well, but that's probably a downstream consequence and not a primary cause.

Variations on the "rice/wheat theory" (occasionally focusing on different types of crop and different regional settings) has been around for a very long time. Here's one claiming that plantations made the Deep South more collectivist, etc etc:

Vandello, JA & Cohen, D (1999) "Patterns of individualism and collectivism across the United States." Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(2)

While not totally devoid of limited insight, these studies tell us so much more about the researchers than the researched. Time and again Western scholars try to explain/understand the supposed collectivism of non-Western peoples versus the independence of the West (nearly always with the implicit understanding that independent peoples are superior ala Easterly's latest book The Tyranny of Experts). This dichotomy is mirrored by the Western tendency to categorize people along a conservative or liberal spectrum. The problem is that the references for what is communal and what is independent or what is conservative and what is liberal in non-Western countries are so rarely scrutinized by Western leaders or more commonly are simply completely imported from the West rather than having any local-to-the-study-group relevancy that we never "hear" from the subjects of the study. What an Asian/African/Westerner considers to be collective or independent mindsets, and the normative values they assign to those mindsets are very, very, very, diverse. By insisting on using Western dichotomies to try and understand non-Western peoples you come up with mostly crap. I see it over and over again both in Africa (where I live and work currently) and in Asia (married to a Korean and lived there many years). Can we please stop doing this?

People are pretty much the same everywhere except that people from East and South Asia have a tendancy to be exceptional in engineering and technical fields which is why I strongly support heavy immigration to help grow the US economy through innovation.

More astrology trying to pass as science.

"wheat farming requires less co-operation between neighbours": doesn't it depend on how you do it? The old "strip cultivation" called for a high degree of co-operation, typically partly imposed by a Manor Court. Did the Northern Chinese ever use a method like that?

I certainly recall lots of group approaches to wheat cultivation/harvesting etc. from the family-oriented parts of Western movies.

Was that actually common? Probably wages were involved in some cases and more collectivist motivations in others.

"The Rice Belt of the United States includes Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, four southern U.S. states that grow a significant portion of the nation's rice crop."

Conduct an experiment. Don't mention rice or wheat. Just ask Americans to rank the states by tendency for collectivisim or tendency to individualism. Is it our prior that Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana would be ranked as very collectivist compared to other states?

That would a great test of American ignorance of their country, but not relevant to the topic at hand. New Hampshire makes Georgia look like Cuba when it comes to individualism. You would not know that if you're just looking at election results.

Assuming this is the topic at hand (area grows wheat or rice is correlated with attitudes about collectivism), noting what the rice region is within the US is relevant. Studying whether that region is correlated with views of collectivism is relevant.

What are the priors regarding Texas etc. among American social psychologists that are conducting these studies outside the U.S.? Until the study set in China is replicated in the U.S., priors is all we have to go on.

If the people populating these areas had been in place for 10,000 years, sure. You need more than a few generations for this stuff to play out. The genome does not change in one lifetime.

One explanation of the rise and fall of populist politics in the the South is that it originated with the importance of water control, and that the South became less populist and more conservative when federal dams and levies stopped the flooding cycle.

"The genome does not change in one lifetime."

There are non-genetic channels through which the organization of team production might affect attitudes towards collectivism or individualism. The UVA scholar is focusing on those.

Not really. In a wheat growing region, individualism, however defined, provides a reproductive advantage. The result is more people with that trait. In a rice growing region, the cooperative trait would be favored. Hence, "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."

Transport these people to Iceland and they will retain their native instincts for individualism/collectivism, as has been observed for as long as we have been observing.

From the researcher's homepage

"My advisor Shige Oishi and I study how moving makes us and our communities different. For example, people who have moved more tend to be more individualistic, donate less to the community, and think more analytically."

If they were studying the human genome, they would be studying genes. They are not. They are studying geography and psychological assessments. Being a counterexample (if something is) does not negate relevancy - it confirms relevancy.

Ok. You win. You're offering nothing of value to me so I will discontinue our exchange.

Do these dolts realize they are comparing different gene pools? As in, northern populations have way more steppe admixture, and southern populations more Hmong, Viet, Tai etc. mix?

Did they control for the half-a-billion-alternatives that could explain what they saw in the stars? Say, different historical experiences during the past century and a half of turmoil? Maybe it is about the Taipings, mainly a southern/central phenomenon, I believe, to just throw in one totally random factor? Or maybe levels of violence/turmoil/disaster during any one or all of (moving backward) - cultural revolution, socialist education movement, great leap forwards, anti-rights/hundred flowers, three/five anti, land reform, civil war, anti-japanese war, civil war, northern expedition, "warlord" period, the multiple already-alluded to 19th Century rebellions. Or about the presence of strong lineage organizations, which might be driven by factors other than rice cultivation? Incidentally, i recall hearing once that de-collectivization proceeded much faster in the south, because small-scale (individual) rice/vegetable cultivation made much sense there, and much slower in the north, because of the scale economies achieved by collectivist agriculture on the north china plain...

whoops, that was "anti-rightists", not "anti-rights"

Well, they appear to have run afoul of the hobby horses of a half-dozen people here.

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