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"Rice theory" may help explain East-West cultural differences: study

English.news.cn   2014-05-09 11:24:56

WASHINGTON, May 8 (Xinhua) -- Cultural differences between the people of northern and southern China may have come about because southern China has farmed rice for thousands of years, whereas the north has grown wheat, researchers from the United States and China said Thursday.

The researchers argued that the so-called "rice theory," which appeared in the U.S. journal Science as a cover story, may also partly explain the differences between community-oriented East Asia and the more individualistic Western world.

"We propose that a history of farming rice makes cultures more interdependent, whereas farming wheat makes cultures more independent, and these agricultural legacies continue to affect people in the modern world," the researchers wrote in their paper.

According to the study led by Thomas Talhelm, a University of Virginia Ph.D. student in cultural psychology, the Chinese people have long been aware of cultural differences between the northern region and the southern area, which are divided by a river called Yangtze, and people in the north are thought to be more aggressive and independent, while people to the south are considered more cooperative and interdependent.

"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.

He noted that rice farming is extremely labor-intensive, requiring about twice the number of hours from planting to harvest as does wheat.

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 argued, 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 told Xinhua he developed the rice theory after living in China for four years. He first worked as a high school teacher in 2007 in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, where he noticed that people were "very avoidant of conflict."

"When I was in the narrow aisles of my local supermarket and people inevitably bumped into me, I noticed that they would often tense up, look at the floor, and shuffle away quietly," he said.

Then, a few months later, on his first trip to northern China, he found that people in the north were "more brash, more direct."

"My American roommate and I were visiting a museum, when an employee said, 'Your Chinese is very good!' We were pleased. But then she said, 'Your Chinese...' and she pointed to me 'is better than your Chinese' pointing to my roommate. We were horrified. We didn't mention it for weeks," Talhelm said.

"So I had this hypothesis that northern and southern China had two very different cultures, but I wanted to know why they were different. In the four years I lived in China, I kept coming back to the question of why southern China was so different," he said.

Later on, Talhelm learned that the Yangzte River is the dividing line between rice and wheat in China. "For many generations, people south of the Yangtze have grown rice, and people to the north have grown wheat. I read books from anthropologists who lived in pre-modern rice and wheat villages and found out that ... the cultural differences I had seen on the ground fell on the historical outlines of rice and wheat farming in China."

To test their rice theory, the researchers investigated the thought styles of more than 1,100 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 South Korea.

"The rice theory held regardless of country," Talhelm said. " India also has a rice-wheat split, and I conducted the same tests there and found similar cultural differences."

"Interestingly, other East Asian nations, such as Japan and South Korea, also are basically rice cultures, and the rice theory might explain why these countries are so much less individualistic than the Western world, even with their wealth and modernization," he added.

Editor: Xiang Bo
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