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August 1, 2014

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You are what you grow? Rice theory of culture holds intrigue

RICE or wheat? The choice may be more than a matter of taste: It could even determine personality.

That’s according to Thomas Talhelm, an American psychology PhD candidate at the University of Virginia, who recently received wide media notice for sharing his “Rice Theory of Culture.”

According to his research, people from rice-farming areas are more interdependent, can be shy around strangers and are focused on avoiding conflict; people from wheat-producing areas are less concerned about preserving social harmony, are more independent and more outgoing and straightforward.

The theory fits not only in China, but also in other rice-cultivating countries, such as Japan and South Korea. Singapore is another “rice personality country” because a big part of the population there are descendants of Chinese immigrants from the rice-farming areas, Talhelm says.

For the past few years, the 28-year-old American has traveled around China to work on his rice theory, and now he is expected to expand it to India and other Asian countries.

“Rice is very special farming,” says Talhelm who recently came to Shanghai for a psychology workshop, “because before modern technology was developed, farming rice needed more cooperation than farming wheat.”

“Rice needs much more labor, and people need to cooperate,” he says. “Flooding, draining, harvesting, fertilizing and others all need cooperation, and if you mess things up, your neighbors may be pissed.”

Talhelm and his co-researchers designed tests to prove the theory, and nearly 1,000 people in China took part.

One test asks people to draw their social network with circles representing themselves and their friends and family. People from wheat areas tend to draw themselves bigger than others, while those from rice areas usually draw themselves smaller.

Another test is about thinking methods. People are required to choose two words they believe are closest to each other from among three words, for example, from “seagull, sky and dog.”

People from rice areas tend to choose seagull and sky because seagulls fly in the sky, while those from wheat areas choose seagull and dog because both are animals.

“The category pairing is closer to Western thinking methods while the relational pairings are closer to Japanese and Korean culture,” says Talhelm. “And rice is the key to the difference.”

He says he has experienced the personality difference in China during the research. When he and a friend went to Harbin in northeastern China’s Heilongjiang Province, a museum employee pointed at him, saying that “your Chinese is better than (pointing at his friend) your Chinese.”

“This made us a bit uncomfortable as we’re not used to being compared with people in public,” he says. “But she didn’t mean any harm, but just said what she thought. And people from rice-farming areas don’t tend be so direct.”

Talhelm and his colleagues published the study in the May 9 issue of Science magazine and received wide interest. Other media, including Scientific American magazine, have done stories.

People say it makes perfect sense, but also argued that the wheat culture may be affected by the nomadic culture in the north.

“To further complete the rice theory, we did research in Anhui Province, where the northern part of province grows wheat while the southern part grows rice,” Talhelm tells Shanghai Daily. “And it proved that even with the influence of other cultures, the theory still holds.”

He says his interest in the rice theory started years ago. “How I came up with the rice and wheat theory is a very long story. It actually started from a study on Chinese dialect.”

Talhelm says his roommate, who was also an American, signed up for a yoga class in Guangzhou in southern China’s Guangdong Province. When the instructor asked them to “raise a hand,” he raised a hand, but he found that Chinese around him all raised their elbows.

The different meaning of shou (ÊÖ) in different Chinese dialects aroused Talhelm and his roommate’s interest. They drew a map to see where shou referred only to hands and where it also referred to arms.

“And one day when I looked at the map, it occurred to me that almost all the places where shou means hands only are wheat-planting areas, while the rest are rice-planting areas,” says Talhelm. “And I was wondering if the agriculture would affect cultures.”

Talhelm speaks very fluent Chinese. He says he didn’t have the cliché-like “Chinese Dream” that many foreigners claim to have, and his China story came quite by chance.

“My major was Spanish language and literature during undergraduate school at the University of Michigan. So when we could apply for an exchange project to other countries, I logically applied for Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries,” he explains.

But what Talhelm received was an offer to go to Beijing. After coming to China in 2007, Talhelm fell in love with Chinese culture very quickly. Now he spends school time at the University of Virginia, and vacations mainly in China to conduct further research.

Apart from psychology, Talhelm is also concerned about China’s air quality and developed his own contraption that uses an electric fan and a HEPA filter. He removes the front cover of the fan and binds a HEPA filter to it. When the fan is turned on, the HEPA filter traps the particles. Talhelm sells the device online, more or less without a profit.


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