Rice versus wheat agriculture could explain cultural differences within China, claim researchers

Greater interdependency found in rice-growing regions

People living in the rice-growing regions of southern China are more interdependent, loyal, and nepotistic, and less likely to divorce than their counterparts in the wheat-growing regions north of the Yangtze, according to a study published in the journal Science.

Han Chinese students from various regions in the country underwent a series of tests, including the ‘triad task’, which shows subjects lists of three items, such as train, bus, and tracks. They then decide which two items should be paired together. Two of the items (trains and buses) can be paired because they belong to the same category (trains and buses are forms of transport), and two (trains and tracks) because they share a functional relationship (trains run on tracks). Participants from rice-growing regions were more likely to pair the train and the track, whereas those from wheat-growing regions tended to pair the train and the bus.

The so-called ‘rice theory’ is an extension of subsistence style theory, which argues that some forms of subsistence (such as farming) require more functional interdependence than other forms (such as herding). Over time, societies that have to cooperate intensely become more interdependent, whereas societies that do not have to depend on each other as much become more individualistic. Previous studies have tended to focus on farming versus herding rather than differences between types of farming.

The two major differences between farming rice and wheat are irrigation and labour. Rice paddies require the construction and maintenance of elaborate irrigation systems, in turn requiring cooperation between farmers – often at village level. Farmers also need to coordinate their use of water so as not to adversely affect the supplies of their neighbours. Overall, growing paddy rice is at least twice as labour intensive as wheat farming.

The rice theory predicts that a Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno mentality will apply to anybody living in a region where rice has been farmed for thousands of years, not just those directly involved with its production. This prediction was borne out by the study, as few if any of the participants had actually farmed rice or wheat for a living.

My feelings are that while this is an interesting study, one should always be cautious about cultural determinism.


1. Talhelm, T. et al., Large-Scale Psychological Differences Within China Explained by Rice Versus Wheat Agriculture. Science 344, 603-608 (2014).



Author: prehistorian

Prehistorian & author