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…