What Do Rice and Wheat Have to Do With Chinese Views on Sex?

What Do Rice and Wheat Have to Do With Chinese Views on Sex?

Why you should care

Because a stark divide in attitudes to premarital sex has strange roots.

Rural or urban. Poor or rich. Educated or not. Rock or pop. Researchers are constantly trying to divide China into helpful categories to explain patterns and proclivities.

But when Yang Hu, a sociologist at the University of Essex in England, delved into views on sexual behavior he found a novel divide:

People who live in China’s rice-growing provinces are 33 percent more likely to approve of premarital sex than those in wheat-growing areas.

Much has been written about the sexual revolution in China. In surveys from 1989, only 15 percent of respondents said they’d had sex before marriage. Five years later, that figure was up to 40 percent; by 2012, 71 percent. When researchers put this rapid change in behavior into a national context, it was often framed as an urban-rural split. And the usual explanations were trotted out: Western influence and/or economic development.

Yet Hu found something unexpected when he looked at the 2010 China General Social Survey of more than 11,000 people across 30 Chinese provinces. Views on premarital sex and homosexuality — both considered “nontraditional” sexual practices — couldn’t be fully explained by factors such as income or Western influence when controlled for other individual criteria like age. “The recent changes didn’t really explain a large portion of variation in sex ideology across China,” says Hu. Differences in views seemed to fall more along geographic lines, with the south of China having significantly more liberal views than the north.

But Hu didn’t think geography itself was the key factor. It was more about how the surveyed communities made a living. The provinces that traditionally harvested rice were more accepting of premarital sex and homosexuality compared with the seemingly more conservative wheat-growing provinces. For example, only 7 percent of respondents in wheat-growing Xinjiang approved of premarital sex, and just 2 percent gave the nod to homosexuality. In rice-growing Guangdong, by contrast, 54 percent of those surveyed were fine with premarital sex, and 24 percent had a live-and-let-live attitude toward homosexuality.

So, what’s up with crops as predictors of sexual attitudes? As you might expect, some researchers have developed a theory, and it goes like this. Rice harvesting, which requires a larger amount of irrigation than growing wheat, promotes cooperation among workers and increased interdependency. Growing wheat is more manageable with farmers working alone. The need for cooperation in rice-growing regions could lead to a culture of more mutual understanding and tolerance — or at least an awareness of the need to not rock the boat with your neighbors. “The assumption is that if you have to rely on each other for subsistence, you have to be more tolerant of each other,” says Hu.

Thomas Talhelm, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago, has pioneered much of the work around the rice theory. He says its application to explain sexual attitudes makes sense. “I tend to avoid the word ‘cooperation’ because that sounds really fun and nice,” says Talhelm. “It isn’t like being on a basketball team. It’s more like ‘my behavior affects other people, so I have to be careful.’” What he noticed anecdotally from his time in China, and later through research, was the conflict avoidance of residents in rice-growing areas. “You don’t swing your elbows as much,” he says. In fact, in one of Talhelm’s inventive experiments, he studied whether Chinese Starbucks patrons from different regions were willing to move chairs placed in their paths.

In a way, explains Hu, wheat growers are more individualistic. Not in an ideological sense, but in how they can afford to make enemies by judging the behavior of others — especially if that behavior occurs behind closed doors.

But wait, what about wheat-growing regions of Europe or North America? Shouldn’t they be more sexually conservative than Asia rather than the other way around? Hu says the rice theory, and the accompanying pressures of subsistence farming, is only one explanation for culture. Other, more powerful factors, including religion, can override economic forces.

Hu says he isn’t sure how long cultural differences between rice- and wheat-growing regions will last. He’s hesitant to speak about the topic without data. But he speculates that eventually there might be a convergence in attitudes. For one, access to media and its content are becoming more standardized across the country.

You might call it a monoculture.


Numbers and factoids — fodder for your next cocktail party.