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The 2 Cultures of China

The U.S. has red states and blue states. China has rice provinces and wheat provinces, and the profound differences between them provide evidence of how cultural assumptions arise.
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China's Yangtze River. (Photo: PRILL/Shutterstock)

China's Yangtze River. (Photo: PRILL/Shutterstock)

According to conventional wisdom, Westerners and Asians see themselves, and the world, in fundamentally different ways. Americans are individualistic, independent, and analytical, while the Chinese take a more holistic view of life, emphasizing interdependence and context.

But of course, different regions of the U.S. have very different cultural norms. And according to provocative new research, the same is true of China.

Writing in the journal Science, a team led by University of Virginia psychologist Thomas Talhelm provides evidence that China can be divided into two regions with distinct mindsets: the area south of the Yangtze River, which conforms to the aforementioned stereotypes, and the area north of the river, where residents’ attitudes are much closer to those of Westerners.

The researchers refer to these as the “rice provinces” (those in the south) and the “wheat provinces” (the north). And they provide evidence their different agricultural traditions are the keys to these divergent cultural traditions.

Talhelm and his colleagues conducted a study of 1,162 Han Chinese college students at six testing sites across the country. A series of tests revealed their cultural assumptions, including the well-known triad task, in which participants are given lists of three items and asked which two should be paired together. Their answers reveal underlying thought patterns.

This fascinating paper offers further evidence that relationship between man and the land shapes cultural assumptions, which are then passed down from generation to generation.

For example, if the words are train, bus, and tracks, people with an individualistic/analytical mindset would pair train and bus, since they belong to the same category (modes of transportation). In contrast, those from holistic cultures are more likely to pair train with tracks, since “they share a functional relationship,” the researchers note.

Sure enough, “people from provinces with a higher percentage of farmland devoted to rice paddies thought more holistically,” Talhelm and his colleagues report. What’s more, when analyzing differences between neighboring counties in the nation’s center, they again found “people from the rice side of the border thought more holistically than people from the wheat side.”

To get at these differences in a different way, the researchers had participants draw diagrams of their social networks, “with circles to represent the self and friends.” Much like Europeans taking that same test, participants from the wheat provinces drew their own circle significantly larger compared to those representing their friends and acquaintances. In contrast, those from the rice provinces drew their circle just a bit smaller than the others.

"We interpret this as (an indicator of the) unconscious importance of the self," Talhelm explained. "Americans self-inflate more than people in every culture I've seen studied. People in the rice parts of China did not self- inflate, on average, but people in the wheat parts of China did."

Talhelm and his colleagues note that rice is a labor-intensive crop, dependent upon a complex infrastructure including dikes and canals. This, they argue, created a culture that recognizes human interdependence. In contrast, northern farmers are much more likely to grow wheat, which is simpler to produce and allows growers considerable independence; this experience created a very different mindset.

The researchers note there are other theories regarding the creation of these widely held beliefs, but add that their study yielded no evidence that either greater wealth or higher rates of disease led to a more collectivist culture. Indeed, their evidence suggests both of those propositions are untrue, at least in China.

This fascinating paper offers further evidence that relationship between man and the land shapes cultural assumptions, which are then passed down from generation to generation. This notion has been used to explain the “rugged individualism” of the Rocky Mountain West; this research suggests it has much wider applications.

In addition, it clearly shows how wrong we are to assume the huge nation of China is (with the exception of outlying areas such as Tibet) more or less monolithic. Clearly, some regions (including the capital of Beijing) have populations that share many basic assumptions with Westerners, while others are closer in mindset to people in other rice-cultivating countries such as Japan and Korea.

That understanding is important to keep in mind as China’s influence expands, and our relationship with the nation grows in importance. The cliché “East is East and West is West” may need an addendum: “wheat is wheat and rice is rice.”