Wheat or rice?

By Katrin Büchenbacher Source:Global Times Published: 2017/10/25 18:43:40

New research links Chinese attitudes toward sex to agriculture

Rice growers are more open toward premarital sex, homosexuality and sex outside of marriage, newly published research has shown. Photo: IC

Newly published research by Hu Yang, a lecturer at Lancaster University in the UK, makes a bold claim: Chinese attitudes towards sex might be explained by their modes of agricultural production.

"There is no 'national' sexual revolution in China because this would be too general. Sexual attitudes vary a lot from province to province," Hu told the Metropolitan.

The scholar analyzed data from the 2011 Chinese Statistical Yearbook and the 2010 China General Social Survey that included answers from 11,563 respondents from 30 provinces, cities and autonomous regions. The respondents were asked about their degree of approval of homosexuality, premarital sex and extramarital sex.

Hu found that Chinese who grew up in rice-growing regions have a more liberal view of sex than those from wheat-growing regions. For example, people from southeastern China were found more open toward premarital sex than their northwestern counterparts. In Guangdong, Guangzhou Province, 54 percent of the residents consider premarital sex morally acceptable, while only seven percent approve of it in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The national average is 27.4 percent.

But how does the mode of agriculture influence the views of today's Chinese, who are not necessarily working in the fields anymore?

The rice theory uses farming to explain cultural differences in China. Rice farming is twice as labor intensive as wheat farming and requires the construction of dikes and canals for irrigation. Farmers rely on a shared infrastructure and have to collaborate to make it work for everyone. In contrast, wheat farming requires less cooperation because it grows on dry land and does not need much additional irrigation, so farmers tend to depend more on themselves. Hence, rice farming might have led to more interdependence, mutual understanding and social tolerance, while wheat farming did so to a lesser extent.

According to Thomas Talhelm, leading author of the rice theory, the traditional farming methods have a longstanding effect on the way people think in geographical regions.

"Even if people don't work in agriculture, it may have a lasting influence," Hu said.

Similar but different

But are the Chinese in Beijing aware of how agriculture affects their way of thinking? Are those born in wheat-growing regions really more conservative toward sex than their southern counterparts? And how does a foreigner in Beijing experience regional cultural differences in China?

The Metropolitan recently hit the streets of Beijing to put the rice theory to the test.

When asked about preferring rice or wheat products, a 30-year-old woman surnamed Wang from Wuzhen in the rice-growing Zhejiang Province thinks the regional differences are relatively small.

Wang. Photo: Katrin Büchenbacher/GT

"Noodles, rice, it's all the same. The cultural differences between the provinces are not so big," she said, adding that Chinese share the same knowledge system and consumer habits.

Concerning the openness toward sex, she thinks it might be related to the degree of economic development.

"In more developed areas, young people's minds may be more open," she said.

Shao Jianliang, a 50-something-year-old businessman from Shenzhen, recognizes the regional differences.

"People from southern China are possibly more open," he said. Shao thinks one reason may be the different food cultures, as southern coastal regions often eat seafood, which is a natural aphrodisiac.

Shao also believes that the West has influenced coastal cities through trade. However, according to Hu, newer social developments such as modernization, deindustrialization and Westernization can explain the variance between different provinces regarding sexual attitudes, but their influence is not as big as the agriculture.

Shao Jianliang Photo: Katrin Büchenbacher/GT

"When we look at those differences, we should be looking at more longstanding traditions as well as recent social developments that are shaping the way we think today," Hu said. The scholar believes the traditional mode of production is quite a powerful indicator.

"How people link to each other and understand each other's behavior could influence interpersonal tolerance of non-conventional social behaviors," he said.

Beijinger Wang Di, 26, works in advertising and thinks that attitudes vary from person to person, regardless of where they grew up.

"Among my friends in Beijing, there are open but also more reserved people," he said.

Similarly, 22-year-old Wang Shuoli from Tianjin thinks it depends on the individual rather than the geographical region.

"It's hard to believe that there is a correlation between agriculture and attitudes toward sex," she said.

American national Tillman Huett believes that culture in China is mixing due to traveling between different regions.

"It's pretty difficult to imagine there being a distinct cultural difference," he said.

"[However,] in my very limited knowledge in the differences between southern and northern Chinese women, there is a difference in their openness toward sex. I think southern women might be more open toward sex than northern women."

Wang Di Photo: Katrin Büchenbacher/GT

Wang Shuoli Photo: Katrin Büchenbacher/GT

Tillman Huett Photo: Katrin Büchenbacher/GT

 Talking about sex

Wang Di thinks that sex before marriage is a personal choice. He lost his virginity at 19.

"But you have to pay attention to safety," he said. "It's not something you can't do. But be safe, and make sure both sides agree on it."

According to him, sex can be openly discussed, but within limits.

"Don't be presumptuous," he warned.

Wang Shuoli agreed with him. She is only slightly different in her approach.

"Even though it is not an extremely private topic, you should not talk about in a public setting," she said.

Wang Di's liberal attitude stops when it comes to open relationships.

"In a relationship, the feeling of being loyal to each other has to be preserved," he said.

Wang from Zhejiang has a similar outlook. She is against her boyfriend seeing other women, but believes that Chinese society has opened up a lot on the question of one-night stands.

"It is now very common and a new choice for young people. I think there is nothing wrong with it," she said.

The data from the social survey Hu analyzed indicates that the younger generation is a lot more likely to approve of these sexual practices.

"There is a generational difference," Hu said. "New media has certainly diffused the boundaries between the provinces."

Shao believes that Chinese have widely opened up regarding the issue of sex before marriage. However, according to the 2010 China General Social Survey conducted by the Renmin University, only 29 percent of Chinese approve of premarital sex and only 12 percent approve of homosexuality in 2010.

Even those who are willing to discuss sex in public have their boundaries. For example, Shao clams up when asked his opinion on one-night-stands.

"This is a social problem," he said.

Also, not all Westerners are liberal when it comes to sex. Huett is not into one-night-stands and is skeptical of open relationships too, saying that he has never seen any succeed.

"It's usually one person in the relationship who wants the open relationship. The other person never seems to want it," he said.

The way Chinese such as Shao and Wang Di think about sex may be shaped by how they were raised, the TV shows they watched and also whether they had rice dumplings or steamed buns for breakfast. However, Hu's research also told us that we have to go beyond explaining current attitudes by recent social developments such as modernization, deindustrialization and Westernization.


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