Often we view Chinese culture through an East versus West lens. But joint research from the U.S. and China indicates that northern Chinese may have a mind-set closer to individualistic Americans than their southern compatriots. And the reason is rice.

The Yangtze River splits China into north and south and serves as an agricultural and cultural divide, explains University of Virginia doctoral candidate Thomas Talhelm, first author of the study, which appears in Science. Farmers north of the Yangtze predominantly grow wheat, and those to the south grow rice. Cultivating rice is very labor- and water-intensive, and it therefore requires sharing resources. Communities have to cooperate to plant and irrigate. Growing wheat requires half the labor and depends more on rainfall patterns, so it can be managed with much less reliance on one's neighbors.

Talhelm wondered if agricultural practices could help explain the more individualistic, or Western, mind-set he found in the north compared with the more holistic, or Eastern, way of thinking in the south. To investigate his “rice theory,” Talhelm's team tested 1,162 students from 28 provinces in China for holistic thought, implicit individualism and loyalty. As expected, the researchers found that holistic thought and loyalty were higher in provinces with rice cultivation and that individualism was more common in wheat-farming areas. To see if the rice theory applied beyond students, the researchers also looked at provincial divorce rates, another indicator of individualism. “Wheat regions had a 50 percent higher divorce rate than rice regions,” Talhelm says.

The rice theory jibes with other cultural research into how agriculture influences thinking, explains Richard Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, who was not involved in the study. For example, Nisbett found that in Turkey, farmers (an interdependent occupation) were much more holistic than herders (an independent occupation). The new results add to our growing understanding that a region's agricultural history may have a lasting influence on its modern citizens' mind-set.