In order to best examine some of the fundamental real (and perceived or stereotypical) differences between northerners and southerners in China during this period, it is best to begin with a short work which is presented as direct advice regarding cultural norms in both areas and that is less insulting in nature and more revelatory of some of the distinct differences in customs.
Through examination of these customs, better ground can be laid to discuss how these expressions of culture through customary acts are representative of some of the nuanced general differences in behavior between northerners and southerners. Before setting out to discuss how cultural differences are explored in two primary documents from the period of the northern and southern dynasties, it is necessary to provide some groundwork upon which to discuss some of the key differences between the northern and southern regions.
One critical fact to mention is that the north and south were not culturally divided by accident and there are several explanations that lie in geographical, climate-related, social, religious, trade, and political reasons. First, the distinct geographies played a major role in the separation and despite infiltrations, conquests, and migrations between both the north and the south, the geographic boundaries that separate each act as almost physical markers for culture as well as populations.
Related to geography is the fact of climate, which not only affects the north and the south in terms of their agricultural and habit particularities, this also influences some general personality traits that are often thought of as being distinct to the north or south. As one historian notes, “Nature is harsh in the north and bountiful in the south, and the difference is reflected in the temperaments of the people…visitors observed that northerners are stolid and stern and make good soldiers, whereas southerners are volatile and quick-witted and make good businessmen” (Hucker 5). These natural features prompted cultural divisions, which was further aided by the distinct political differences between the two regions with the more barbarian-based leadership in the north and the traditional culture in the south. Although the north had a much greater political and military might with this political base, the south had its own distinct advantages, namely in its enrichment of culture. Feeling as though they were the rightful cultural heirs of the Han, many in the south who migrated from northern regions, “felt themselves to have quite a separate identity from the northerners, whom they despised as crude, boorish, and semi-barbarian” (Franke 5). This led to a feeling of cultural superiority and a tendency for the southerners to view those of the northern regions as uncivilized. While both cultures thrived artistically, religiously (with the growing prominence of Buddhism and increased linguistic homogeneity) and in other ways, these divisions remained and are present in two pieces from these periods, ““Yan Zhitui’s Advice to his Sons on Differences in Customs” and “A Northerner’s Defense of Northern Culture.”
Just as in “A Northerner’s Defense of Northern Culture” there are clear divisions laid out between northerners and southerners in the piece “Yan Zhitui’s Advice to his Sons on Differences in Customs.” The main differences between these two pieces of writing lie in the ultimate purpose and the related lack of critical, vicious tone. This piece is more of a list of sorts to guide two young men as they navigate the steep cultural divides between the two regions and does not necessarily indicate how one culture is superior to the other. However, with such an approach, much more about specific differences between northern and southern culture can be gleaned as it is more devoid of the bitter bias expressed in the other piece. Through the depictions of how each culture greets guests, mourns and grieves, and conduct general social business, one can draw conclusions about the cultures they come from. While the advice piece lacks the more specific and direct attacks on certain aspects of culture, a reading of Yan Zhitui’s advice prompts the reader to make his or her own assumptions by reading between the lines. What emerges when reading this practical cultural advice is that northerners, while less formal in their social interactions are more tied to a utilitarian approach to life with their lessened emphasis on material and other outward or projected refinements.
Southerners by contrast have more structured social systems that are comprised of laws relating to politeness and emotion. They are less concerned with functionality in their approach to life and outward projection and are more inclined toward working toward refinement.