Manners maketh the mainland
Beijing socialites are signing up to the country's first school of etiquette, writes Simon Parry, and its Hong Kong-born founder is on a mission to reawaken traditions of courtesy
They buy more Bentleys than the British, fill their luxury homes with more Swarovski crystal than the Swiss and spend more on Louis Vuitton and Versace than the French or the Italians. But one precious commodity, it seems, has eluded the citizens of the mainland in the country's extraordinary rise from developing nation to economic superpower: manners.
Officials have at times been so exasperated by their tendency to spit, shout, slurp food and push in at queues that campaigns have been launched pleading with people to show more decorum.
But now, for the first time on the mainland, it seems that money can buy you perfect manners. A school of etiquette is about to open in Beijing, with classes based on those of the world-renowned Swiss finishing schools, all but one of which are now closed.
Founded by a well-bred Hong Kong businesswoman who herself attended that Swiss school (the Institut Villa Pierrefeu), Institute Sarita offers an exclusive clientele lessons in being classy - for an appropriately princely sum, of course. Courses cost from 20,000 yuan (HK$24,600) to 100,000 yuan and the school - based in the five-star Park Hyatt Beijing hotel - aims to teach local debutantes and society wives how to behave impeccably in polite society at home and abroad.
Sara Jane Ho - who names Britain's Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, as the ideal modern role model for young women in China - believes the perfect manners the daughters and wives of the mainland's super-rich learn will trickle down through society.
Two months before her school officially opens, dozens of well-heeled women are queuing for teaser classes on how to use a knife and fork, how to peel fruit, how to greet a prospective mother-in-law, how to walk in heels and how to eat soup without slurping. Meanwhile, high-powered bosses of state-owned firms are hiring Ho - who lived in London as a child and speaks with a plummy British accent - for private lessons in how to conduct themselves socially and at business meetings in the West.
Sipping elegantly and noiselessly from a bowl of vegetable soup in a trendy Beijing restaurant, the 27-year-old Harvard Business School graduate says the mainland managed to misplace its manners during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s.
"A lot of foreign friends ask me, 'Do you think Chinese people are being rude on purpose?'," says Ho, whose own family fled the mainland during the Cultural Revolution and made their fortunes in Hong Kong.
"Hearing about Chinese nationals behaving badly abroad affects me on a very personal level. I am Chinese and I am very proud of my country. I don't think the vast majority of Chinese people are purposely offensive. They just haven't been enlightened to etiquette awareness.
"The Cultural Revolution wiped a lot of that away. When you are pushing to the front of the food ration line just to get that last bit of rice to feed your family, you don't have the luxury to think about etiquette. You are just trying to survive.
"There are stages a society has to go through. First, they are just looking for food and shelter. After that, they think of things like political freedoms or etiquette."
Ho spent her early years in Papua New Guinea - where her father, who is bankrolling her new venture, worked for oil giant Shell - before moving to London and then back home to Hong Kong, where she attended the Peak School and the German Swiss International School. Given that her résumé then includes the Institut Villa Pierrefeu and her studies in the United States, it is with some justification that she claims to be "a meeting point between East and West".
"I am from Hong Kong, which is a stepping stone to China," she says. "I am very much Chinese but I was raised in the West. We had a home in London. My father graduated from Imperial College in London.
"My friends would ask me, 'Is your dad British?' because he has such a strong British accent. When I am in America I feel quite American. When I am in Britain I feel British. When I am in China I feel Chinese."
Explaining why she decided to set up in business in China, she says: "I wanted to make an impact and Hong Kong is already too mature a market for me to really make an impact. Even though most of my family and friends are in Hong Kong, I thought, 'China needs so much help.' I love Beijing. There's an energy here. You almost feel anything can happen. It's similar to the energy in New York some time ago but there's something very real about Beijing."
The government staged a valiant but largely unsuccessful politeness campaign in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics to try to dissuade the capital's notoriously brusque citizens from littering, spitting and queue-jumping. Paper bags were handed out in the street by volunteers wearing uniforms emblazoned with the character for "mucus", and a squad of 1,500 supervisors was sent out to discourage queue-jumping and fighting at bus stops.
Beijing's People's University even set up a "civic index" to calculate people's politeness. Researchers concluded glumly that manners were still a long way off international norms, and the index was quietly dropped.
Shanghai, meanwhile, launched a "seven nos" campaign - no spitting, no littering, no vandalism, no damaging greenery, no jaywalking, no smoking in public places and no swearing - to try to improve its citizens' manners, with similarly lukewarm results.
The enduring lack of grace and manners has at times been something of a national embarrassment, with academics openly debating in the mainland media how habits might be changed.
"As the Chinese saying goes, it takes 10 years to grow a tree but 100 years to bring up a generation of good men," a commentator in the noted. "It might take a generation or longer to wipe out these bad habits."
The wife of a multimillionaire and one of Ho's early students, Jiang Zaozao says: "I simply can't abide people who pick their nose, spit and talk too loudly." The 30-year-old Beijing socialite, whose husband heads one of China's biggest auction houses and who has a family income of 10 million yuan a month, recalls some of the toe-curling social embarrassments she has suffered.
"Recently, I went into an upmarket salon where it costs 1,000 yuan for a haircut and a customer came in and started talking in a shout," she says, rolling her immaculately made-up eyes in exasperation. "My Japanese hairdresser grimaced and asked me, 'Why do Chinese people talk so loudly?' I was so ashamed, I didn't know what to say.
"Another time, I was at an exclusive society function and a very pretty lady of about 25 butted in to our conversation and just talked over everyone, saying whatever she wanted. She was dressed beautifully but her manners were quite appalling." She adds witheringly: "Those manners most certainly didn't match her designer clothes.
"I can quite understand poor people not having good manners because they have to struggle for a living. But better-off people really ought to know better. As it is, some people behave like barbarians. They eat and drink loudly and take phone calls in the middle of dinner or at a movie. There are so many wealthy people in China but they have no manners. I often think about migrating to another country because of it."
For Ho, the inspiration to change a nation's bad habits came not from the streets of Beijing but from her Swiss education.
"I didn't tell too many of my friends I was going to finishing school because I was worried they would say, 'Oh that's so silly - it's just a bunch of rich girls walking around with books on their head,'" she says.
"Traditionally, European aristocracy would send their daughters to finishing school. Princess Diana went; Camilla Parker-Bowles went. Now, the business of finishing schools is in emerging economies. Out of the 30 or so classmates I had, I would say 25 were from emerging economies - five from India, five from the [United Arab] Emirates, five from Nigeria. My roommate was from the Amazon.
"They were very cosmopolitan and they all knew the importance of international savoir faire, and the importance of hosting, greetings and introductions. We also learnt floral arrangement."
What she learnt at finishing school went far beyond the correct way to address a duchess or fold a napkin, Ho insists. "When I went there I thought etiquette was very fixed and led by rules on what to do and what not to do.
"What I learned is that etiquette is very flexible and it's not about showing that you know how to behave in certain situations but more about the feeling of ease at which you put others."
Etiquette, she argues, has much in common with traditional Chinese values. "Eastern and Western etiquette are the same. They are both emphasising consideration to others and this takes us back to very traditional Confucian values - consideration of others, humility and modesty."
What she teaches her students about table manners may subtly change the mainland, Ho says: "Change in China is top down. Institute Sarita is just a first step. First you change the leaders of companies and social circles and then they will go on to change others around them.
"The students I train will go on to influence those around them so that we eventually have what I ultimately want to achieve - a global etiquette movement," Ho says.
"There is an aura of mystery about European royalty that Chinese people can't resist. Any aristocracy in China was wiped out by the Cultural Revolution. So the Chinese are fascinated by the idea of a royal dynasty that stretches back hundreds of years.
"Kate Middleton is probably the most followed royal in China now. She is very elegant. She is very classy. Even though she is not from an aristocratic family she carries herself very well and I think she is a role model for the younger generation around the world.
"All my students will know who she is. I am sure life for her is not easy. It is very demanding to be a role model and to have everybody watch your every move, but she has carried it off with so much class and patience. She seems to exude kindness and etiquette awareness and care for others."
As well as giving lessons in basic etiquette, Ho hopes to invite visiting British aristocrats to lecture her students and even has plans to lead classes on a Grand Tour, taking in the opera houses and art galleries of Europe, to complete their education.
The acute social anxiety felt by Chinese people travelling abroad was reflected for Ho in an encounter she had with a businessman from Inner Mongolia, a highly successful man who is a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
"He was about to go on his first trip to America and he was so nervous. He was really showing his vulnerable side. He said, 'I am going abroad, I am going to America, I am nervous, I don't even know what to do when I sit down to a business meeting or how to behave or introduce myself or shake someone's hand.'
"It is promising that these leaders of Chinese companies and social circles are opening up their vulnerable sides and showing what they need to learn."
Converting Beijing's nouveau riche will be no small task, of course. At one recent introductory lesson, female students drove up in a convoy of Maseratis, Ferraris and Bentleys then emerged in a maelstrom of fur and diamonds. Their nails were so ornate they had difficulty handling the cutlery.
"In Hong Kong and London, it is all about subtlety," Ho says. "In Beijing, I will go out to lunch with a girlfriend and she will have a big Marc Jacobs ring that you open up and it's a lip balm. When I go out to socialite events in Beijing and I put on minimal make-up, they say, 'Darling, you didn't put make-up on today. Are you feeling OK?'"
Not everyone in the capital is impressed by Ho's mission, however. Some are slightly insulted that she considers a school of etiquette necessary here.
Brand manager Ni Rong, 26, who studied in the US, says: "Older Chinese people might have poor manners but the generation that grew up in the 80s and after are well educated and already have good manners and etiquette. I'm not a fan of this kind of school. Basic common courtesy should be enough."
Public relations executive Lu Xiamei, 24, agrees. "Etiquette courses like this just focus on lists of dos and don'ts and don't teach the essence of inter-cultural communication," he says. "They are flashy and expensive but they don't have any real substance.
"Young people in China need to learn English and how to be successful in business. They don't need to know how to use a knife and fork or how to address a visiting European duchess because, let's face it, they'll probably never get to meet one."
Immaculately dressed, chatty and engaging, Jiang might seem like the last person who needs lessons in manners, but, she insists: "I want to learn more about etiquette and apply it to my everyday life. Then I can influence other people so that they behave better, too."
Jiang expects to pay between 50,000 and 60,000 yuan for her classes at Institute Sarita and seems as excited at the prospect of the lessons as you might expect her to be by a new collection by Valentino or Dior. She already appears amazed at the wealth of knowledge she has acquired from two introductory sessions.
"We learnt how to place cutlery on the table if you need to go to the toilet during dinner," Jiang says. "We also learnt how to shake hands, and how you should always have eye contact when you're talking to people.
"Before the course, I didn't know how to wipe my mouth with a napkin properly or how to fold it before placing it in my lap - or even how to tear a piece of bread and put butter on it."
She pauses, then adds with the shudder of a society hostess who suddenly realises she has committed an unforgiveable faux pas: "It's only now that I realise how terribly rude I must have seemed."