Northern and southern Chinese think differently—and the reason goes back centuriesby Philip Ball / April 27, 2018 / Leave a comment
At last, there’s scientific proof that you can take the person out of the countryside but you can’t take countryside out of the person. In China, at any rate. Yet if “proof” it is, it comes from a gloriously offbeat experiment in social science. Researchers examined differences in the behaviour of northerners and southerners in China by observing them in branches of Starbucks. Well, experiments are meant to happen under standardised conditions, right? And where will you find a social setting more blandly uniform than in Starbucks?
Why should one expect people from the north and south of China to show systematic behavioural differences? The researchers, led by Thomas Talhelm of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, have previously found from psychological testing in the laboratory that the geographical divide correlates with significant differences in attitudes.
People from southern China, they claimed, show more holistic patterns of thinking, attach less importance to notions of self, and make stronger distinctions between friends and strangers, than those in the north. Those attributes are characteristic of a collective society, whereas the traits of northerners are more individualistic.
These might sound like rather generalised, even stereotypical, characterisations. But they correlate with perceptions of a north-south divide among Chinese people that can sometimes seem ingrained to the point of prejudice. Northerners can be seen as haughty, southerners as earthy, pragmatic hustlers.
Talhelm and his colleagues proposed that these distinctions stem from the differing styles of agriculture in the two regions, since until around the mid-twentieth century Chinese life was predominantly rural and agrarian. For thousands of years, southern Chinese grew rice whereas those living on the North China Plain mostly subsisted on wheat and millet.
Rice cultivation is traditionally very labour-intensive. Rice seedlings are planted by hand in waterlogged paddy fields, the water being marshaled into vast expanses of carefully terraced hillside by channels, ditches and sluice gates. The terraces must be drained when the plants are bigger, flooded again when they flower, and then harvested by hand. It would be impossible for rice farmers to manage all of this alone, and so villagers would work together on each others’ paddies, confident of the favour being returned.
This is why China supplies perhaps the most striking example anywhere in the world of the interdependence of geography, climate, and culture. Survival depended on cultivation and thus on the management of water. “Agriculture,” declared the Han Emperor Wudi in 111 BC, “is the basis of the whole world. Springs and rivers, irrigation ditches and reservoirs make possible the cultivation of the five grains.” But only in the humid south was it possible to grow rice, with its tremendous demand on water resources. The population of the drier north made do with wheat instead, which is why even today people associate that region with noodle-eating.
In a way, then, Talhelm’s psychological study, published in 2014, offered a modest proxy for the historical and social undercurrents of this vast nation. The Yangtze basin is the approximate boundary between the two staple grains and their different attendant cultures. The region to the south of the river has often been caricatured in official records as a primitive backwater, a land of rice and fish populated by lazy yokels. Like all demographic generalisations, it’s crude and reductive. But to understand the origins of such preconceptions is to understand some of the defining historical forces that shaped China.
Where, then, does Starbucks fit in? Talhelm and colleagues wondered whether the psychological differences seen in their earlier tests, apparently rooted in older traditional ways of life, could survive in the affluent urban milieu that is increasingly prevalent for Chinese people.
They could have simply set urban Chinese a similar suite of psychological tests to probe the degrees of collective and individualistic thinking. But this time they wanted to see if distinctions were apparent in actual everyday behaviour, without participants even knowing they were being tested. So the researchers decided on the ingenious ploy of rearranging the chairs in Starbucks—or Xingbake as it is known in China.
Starbucks has become something of an invasive species in China: in December the company’s Chinese CEO claimed that it is opening a branch every 15 hours. In branches in six major Chinese cities—Beijing and Shenyang in the north, Nanjing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong in the south—the researchers created “chair traps” by placing two chairs back to back in an aisle with only a narrow gap between them, through which a person would have to squeeze to get by. The objective was to discover if people would assert their individualism by altering their environment—moving the chairs—or adapt to it by edging through. They found that 2-7 per cent would do the former in the southern cities (even in the more Westernised Hong Kong), but 15 per cent or more in the northern ones. (In the US, the average figure was 20 per cent, which shows what a truly individualistic society looks like.)
Another behavioural indicator examined by the team was simply to record how many people drank their coffee alone: another barometer of individualism, and used as such in previous behavioural studies. From observations of around 9,000 people in the cafés, the researchers found that the numbers of lone Starbuckers were consistently greater in the north, by about 10 per cent. The findings are presented in a paper in Science Advances.
There are some obvious questions to be asked about what this is really telling us. First, you might wonder if the folks in Starbucks were from those respective cities at all. But the researchers asked a random selection of 100 or so participants in Shanghai and Beijing to find out, and verified that, even if not all of them were city residents, virtually all were from nearby rice-based provinces in Shanghai and from wheat-based ones Beijing.
Then you might wonder whether the well-heeled clientele of coffee shops can bear any imprint of the traditional farming practices in their regions of origin. (Coffee in China is so expensive that I take my own with me.) But this is the whole point: to test whether old cultural habits can persist even in those far removed from their origins now.
Apparently they can. Indeed, the “collectivist” traits in chair-moving were strongest in the apparently most affluent and westernised Hong Kong and Shanghai. “Many people have the intuition that the wealthy cities of China should be more culturally western, more individualistic,” says Talhelm. “But this research shows the exact opposite.” Instead, although southern China is one of the most modernised regions, its legacy of rice farming has apparently kept it the least individualistic. This, Talhelm says, “challenges conventional wisdom about culture and modernisation.”
Well, perhaps. But the fact that cultural traits survive the trappings of westernisation (which generally means Americanisation) is a familiar enough idea to have become almost a cliché, especially for westerners negotiating the social puzzles of the Far East. Anywaiguoren who has weathered the habits of Chinese driving—aggressively staged games of chicken that even London cabbies would eschew, yet executed entirely without apparent rancor—will know that different rules of interpersonal conduct apply there. What is so thought-provoking in this new study, though, is the idea that even seemingly trivial aspects of everyday behaviour may be inflected by culturally acquired modes of conduct arising from ways of life that no longer seem relevant to our situation at all. You might call it an archaeology of the psyche.