Rice Vs. Wheat

Windwing - Rice Vs. Wheat

Rice Vs. Wheat

Saturday, August 8, 2015 | By:

It's sunset, somewhere in the American Midwest. Amid the rustling wheat fields, a solitary farmer drives a gargantuan machine through the rows. Meanwhile, as the sun rises on the other side of the planet, Chinese rice farmers are moving along shallow pools of water in lines, gathering the crops in groups. Once collected, they will enjoy breakfast as a group.

Scenes like these have been handy stereotypes for generations. The rugged individualism of the American farmer has long been a staple of film and literature, not to mention a defining trait of the American self-image. Likewise, Chinese have defined themselves by their familial ties and collectivist culture. But is there a rice grain of truth in any of these stereotypes? And can they be scientifically proven?

Thomas Talhelm, now a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia, is exploring the idea that the culture and psychology of people in various regions are affected in a measurable way by the methods of farming they use—his hypothesis being that rice farming leads to a more collectivist culture, while wheat farming breeds individualism.

As his study outlined in the May 2014 edition of Science magazine notes, the easiest way to test whether rice and wheat lead to different cultures would be to show that the rice areas of East Asia foster cultures that are interdependent, and that wheat areas in the West are independent.

Windwing - Rice Vs. Wheat

In Guangxi, one of China's southernmost provinces, a group of farmers work together to transplant rice

But as soon as the idea is put out there, it gets shot down. "That logic is obviously flawed. We cannot just compare East and West because they differ on many factors besides rice and wheat—religion, politics, and technology—to name a few."

What is needed, is a country with a shared government, language, history, and religion that farms rice in some areas and wheat in other areas.

Basically, China. With the country split between rice farming in the south and wheat farming in the north, with the dividing line being a zone stretching from the Yangtze River north to the Huaihe River, China itself holds the literal and figurative seeds necessary for this research.

The idea came to Talhelm when he was living in Guangzhou after spending some time in Beijing. "I got a sense that people living there were pretty different," he says. "That got the seed in my mind, north and south are different. For the longest time I didn't have an explanation for why this was. I knew I wanted to study it systematically and see if it was true."

Differences between North and South China have long been themes in Chinese tales, idioms and commentary. "It's not as if I told China that people from the North and South are different, people knew about it, but I had never seen people actually test it."

One popular saying is not far from the hypothesis of Talhelm's study: "一方水土养一方人" which loosely translates to, "The water and soil of an area shape the people."

Another story, revolving around Yan Zi, a Prime Minister of the State of Qi during the Spring and Autumn Period around 2,500 years ago, cites Yan telling foreign functionaries: "They say orange trees have sour and dry fruit in the north, but sweet fruit in the south. Their leaves are similar but the taste is different. Why? Because the environment is different." He then continues: "People in Qi don't steal. But when they come to Chu, they become thieves. The environment of Chu is probably conducive to that kind of behavior."

Yan Zi was most likely directing a not-so-veiled insult toward his hosts, but it's obvious to anyone with a passing interest in China that there are indeed vast cultural differences between regions. It was this that piqued Talhelm's interest. "This question was always on my mind. Why does this difference exist?"

Windwing - Rice Vs. Wheat

A farmer rides a tractor to sow wheat in Northern Anhui Province on a 13-square-kilometer piece of farmland

It began with language. "I was in this class on dialects and they would show us maps of different words. One of them was the word 手 ( shǒu ). I had always learned that to mean hand, but in certain parts of China it can also refer to the whole arm…They were showing us this map of where it means hand and where it can also mean arm, and I thought it would not be random…But it was almost evenly divided along the Yangtze River."

"My first thought was that it was a barrier, or a border. But it's not, people can just get in a boat and cross, it's not like a mountain."

"I don't know at what point it hit me, at some point I learned that that is the dividing line between rice and wheat…There is some background in psychology and anthropology, they call it subsistence theory, the idea that what you do to make a living historically and culturally influences your culture today."


To cut to the chase: yes, the study concluded that there were cultural differences and that they were delineated by the borders between areas that traditionally grew rice and those that grew wheat. The reason for this basically boils down to labor.

Rice paddies require standing water, thus people in rice-growing regions traditionally needed to build large, elaborate irrigation systems that required the cooperation of all the farmers in the village. Water use had to be carefully calculated, because one farmer's water use would affect their neighbors. Entire villages were required to build, dredge and drain these irrigation networks, rather than lone individuals.

A Chinese farming guide, cited in the study, from the 1600s states that "if one is short of labor power, it is best to grow wheat," and said that Chinese anthropologists, as far back as the 1930s, had found that a Chinese husband and wife would not be able to farm a large enough plot of rice to feed a family if they relied solely upon their own labor. Or, as Talhelm states, "It wasn't cooperation with other people for warm fuzzy things—you literally needed to work with these people to get food on the table…This raises the cost of conflict—if I am a jerk to you today, we still have to work together tomorrow. That makes it a lot more awkward and potentially threatens my livelihood if I create conflict. Compare that to wheat farmers who don't really need to have these labor exchange customs."


"Rice Vs. Wheat" is a feature story from our latest issue, " Law ". To continue reading, become a  subscriber  and receive the  full magazine . Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the  iTunes Store .



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