The above map comes from a 2014 paper, Large-scale psychological differences within China explained by rice versus wheat agriculture. From the abstract:
Cross-cultural psychologists have mostly contrasted East Asia with the West. However, this study shows that there are major psychological differences within China. 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. We tested 1162 Han Chinese participants in six sites and found that rice-growing southern China is more interdependent and holistic-thinking than the wheat-growing north. To control for confounds like climate, we tested people from neighboring counties along the rice-wheat border and found differences that were just as large. We also find that modernization and pathogen prevalence theories do not fit the data.
Basically, rice has a higher per unit yield than wheat, but requires a lot more coordinated labor input. To grow paddy rice it takes a village.
This insight was not surprising to me, and introduced in David Sloan Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. In this book Wilson argued for a rehabilitation of the tradition of evolutionary functionalism in the social sciences. Basically, viewing human societies as adaptive functional units. One of his examples to illustrate the necessity of examining group-level function was wet-rice paddy agriculture in Bali, which was only feasible through coordination and collective action between interdependent farms.
The 2014 results made total sense to me in light of what little I knew. Southern Chinese are stereotypically more patriarchal and clannish than Northern Chinese. My inference here being that the collectivist nature of rice agriculture meant that paternal clan units of social organization were more important in the South than the North.
I haven’t followed up on this work at all in all these years. Then I saw this on my Twitter feed: Teens in Rice County Are More Interdependent and Think More Holistically Than Nearby Wheat County.
The authors utilize a natural experiment, a district in the northern province of Ningxia which through a peculiar geological quirk allows for wet-rice agriculture, unlike the rest of the province and the broader region. This is a natural “control” for many variables, as the people of this district are not demographically very different other areas of Ningxia (at least in comparison to North vs. South China).
Their results are clear and seem to confirm the 2014 study:
China’s smallest province Ningxia sits in North Central China. Surrounded by herding cultures to the north and wheat farmers to the south, Qingtongxia is a small outpost of rice farming fed by the Yellow River. We test the hypothesis that rice-farming cultures are more interdependent by comparing high school students from Qingtongxia (N = 190) to students in a nearby wheat district, Yuanzhou (N = 223). Comparing two nearby counties provides a natural test case that controls for third variables. Students in the rice county thought more holistically, treated a close friend better than a stranger, and showed lower implicit individualism. Students in the rice area showed more relative perception than students from the wheat areas on the practice trials of the framed line task, but differences were nonsignificant on the main trials. Differences between teenagers—born after the year 2000—suggest that rice–wheat differences continue among China’s next generation.
One can make a Marxist interpretation of these results: the material conditions determined aspects of economic and social organization which had cultural and psychological consequences. But, the authors also suggest that younger generations which do not engage in farming continue to exhibit the same differences as their agriculturalist parents, suggesting that an element of cultural transmission from prior generations maintained particular folkways and dispositions.
A final note: a few people reading this know that 15 years ago I read The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and why. The title is a little deceptive, as the author focused on three basic groups in regards to cognition. First, Anglo-Nordic people, who were highly individualistic. Second, Continental Europeans, who were somewhat less individualistic than Anglo-Nordics. And finally, the whole rest of the world, which was less individualistic still.
But a lot of the data to construct the contrast was drawn from East Asia. And, I specifically remembered results from Hong Kong. If the above results are correct, it could be that biased sampling in Hong Kong, as well as South Korea and Japan, may have amplified our perception of the importance of “rice psychology”, if that makes any sense….