A recent American scientific research project revealed what many China experts have long known; China is a big place with lots of different cultures. The big divide is between the “wheat eaters” north of the Yangtze River and the “rice eaters” to the south. The fundamental (and now documented) conclusion is nothing new; the northerners and southerners. The southerners are collectivist and reflective while the northerners are more individualistic and analytical. In short the southerners fit the Western stereotype for all East Asians while the northerners are more “Western” in their attitudes.
All of this is due to geography, external influences and diet. It began with the original Han (ethnic Chinese) whose civilization first appeared north of the Yangtze River. Up there the main grain crops were wheat, barley and the like. Rice is a much more productive crop (in terms of calories produced per unit of land) but is more labor intensive and require a higher degree of organization and discipline. It also requires more water which is why the drier north (north of the Yangtze River) remained reliant on non-rice grains. It took centuries to perfect rice cultivation, which is a more complex process than for other grains. It is also more dangerous because the farmers are exposed to a lot of water-borne diseases. It took centuries of trial and error but when it was all done (nearly 10,000 years ago) Chinese agriculture had become the most productive in the world. This led to China having, ever since, the largest population and the longest continuous empire.
There were other factors at work. The northerners are less numerous than those rice eaters down south and also had to deal with centuries of “Northern Barbarians”. The worst of these were the Huns (who later ravaged the Roman Empire), the Mongols and the Manchus. The last two managed to conquer most of China but were eventually absorbed by the more numerous, better educated and persistent Han. In the south life was easier and the more militaristic and analytical northerners were resented, but feared and often obeyed. The emperor was usually from the north and lived up there. But as southerners loved to the say; “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away.”
Nevertheless China, with four times the population of the United States has lots of very distinct cultures. Many conform to the general “wheat eater” or “rice eater” stereotypes but are nonetheless obviously distinct. Moreover, if China is threatened all these factions will unite (or at least try to). While there is a pride among Han, no matter where they live, in the accomplishments of China and the Han people (who are 20 percent of the earth’s population) the Han can also be quite fractious if there is no external threat. And for much of Chinese history there was no major external threat. That meant Chinese history is full of civil wars, massive rebellions and a lot of Han simply not getting along with each other.
The lesson for the West is that while the Chinese may appear monolithic they are anything but. There are many who very much agree with the Western thinking that has given the West an economic, political, scientific and military edge for the last five centuries. But now the Han have noticed that they have among themselves many people who can think and operate like the Westerners and are increasingly turning to these Western thinkers for leadership and a way out from under Western domination.