The wealth of the world is moving eastwards as Europe and America have on all accounts, lost their superiority. Among the nations that in future will command wealth and greater prosperity is, without doubt, China. This is despite its present financial upheavals which in time will stabilise as the country regains its focus and finds its proper perspective in its thrust into a world currently in total disarray.
However, half a century after their leaders dismissed good manners as a bourgeoisie cultural affectation, China’s new elite are flocking to western-style finishing schools to be tutored in politeness and the art of serving British afternoon tea. Demand for professional tutelage in proper deportment is much in demand among the country’s nouveau riche. Run in many cases by British consultants, the courses cover a wide range from holding a cup and saucer to how to wear a hat like the Duchess of Cambridge, or hope to replace their American-tinged English for a more refined British tone.
The Institute SARITA, based in Beijing, charges 80,000 yuan (£8,500) for its 10-day programmes: a ‘hostess’ course for the married and a ‘debutante’ course for single women. One pupil, Shu Ting, 49, remembers how Mao Tse Tung tried to end a 2,500-year tradition of etiquette. ‘We used to have good manners, but we lost them in the Cultural Revolution,’ said Mrs Shu, as she sat in a ‘beauty and grooming’ class offering tips such as never wearing slippers outside the house. ‘Back then, if anyone dared pay attention to etiquette they would be called “capitalists” but now the time has come to pick up manners again. The attendees of such courses are usually drawn from the super-rich, the first generation of Chinese to travel abroad extensively. However, like the wealthy Americans who flocked to Britain at the dawn of mass air travel, they have acquired a reputation for being uncultured.’
China’s Tourist administration said last year that the country’s image had been ‘tarnished’ by bad-mannered tourists. In the Maldives in 2014, President Xi Jinping implored fellow Chinese travellers: ‘Don’t throw water bottles everywhere and eat fewer instant noodles and more local sea-food.’
However, what is taught at the Institute goes beyond the importance of mere common courtesy. As well as the difference between ketchup and tabasco and how to pronounce menu dishes, students are drilled in how to spread foie gras and how to walk in high heels. Its Harvard-educated founder Sara Jane Ho, known in local media as ‘Miss Manners’, acknowledges there was ‘a gap between China’s status in wealth and its level of etiquette and compared the Chinese to 19th and 20th century Americans.’
‘Everyone thought look at the American brutes – they are so unsophisticated and they are buying up everything in Europe with cash, she said. ‘Every civilization goes through something like this. China went from nothing to, in 30 years, having an industrial and services revolution all in one go.’
Finishing schools for man and women have been expanding in China with British outfits Seatton and Debretts establishing a presence in recent years. As for anyone worried as to what Mao might think, the tutors have a polite answer. Rebecca Li, a teacher at the Institute who hails from Mao’s birthplace in Hunan Province said, ‘You are in control of your own image and you can control how others see you.’
The Chinese are hardworking people who learn very fast. It won’t be long before they master the etiquette of behaviour in all walks of life. As I said at the outset of this report, China is the nation to watch and no doubt we shall see a resurgence of their culture with astounding results,