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Like gunpowder and printing, China had etiquette before most of the rest of us. But Confucius has been dead a long time and Mao Zedong got rid of what remained, leaving the Chinese with a reputation around the world for having more money than manners.|
Sara Jane Ho, the 27-year-old quintilingual founder of Institute Sarita, Beijing’s very own version of a Swiss finishing school, plans to change all that by teaching outward-bound Chinese how not to act like the so-called ‘ugly Americans’ of yore. Her timing could be just about perfect.
“Debutantes are becoming big in China,” says Shaun Rein of China Market Research in Shanghai. “It’s definitely a very good market; there are a lot of ‘wannabes’ out there these days.”
And for the wannabe who has almost everything, Ms Ho offers lessons in how to wipe one’s mouth without getting the napkin dirty, peel an orange without touching it with one’s fingers, and avoid stabbing dinner companions with either steak knife or stiletto. She even throws in a short history of cutlery: it seems the humble dinner knife was invented when Cardinal Richelieu ordered all table daggers blunted to stop diners picking their teeth with them.
“Don’t turn your knife blade toward your neighbour,” Ms Ho barked at a group of impeccably coiffed, heavily made-up young women who joined her for a “teaser” lesson in western etiquette in Beijing last Saturday. They were taught how to distinguish between the sherry copita and the champagne flute – despite the fact that some did not know what sherry was.
Many of the participants had graduate degrees, senior jobs in finance or media, or had lived overseas for years. But they all agreed they had a lot to learn about western etiquette.
Ms Ho, whose resumé includes a degree from Harvard Business School and a stint as a New York investment banker topped off with a diploma from one of Switzerland’s last finishing schools, plans to charge Rmb100,000 ($16,000) for a three-month “hostess” course for married women, and Rmb80,000 for a “young lady” course for the debutante. Asked why Chinese would pay Rmb100,000 to learn skills that Europeans no longer pay to study, she says that Europeans learn etiquette at home, while Chinese have to work at it.
For only twice that price, one participant points out, one could get an MBA. But still, buying a Hermès Birkin handbag – the badge of the new Chinese nobility – could cost several times that much.
For Beijing’s Miss Manners, this is not just about telling a shrimp cocktail fork from a chopstick: she wants to launch nothing less than a cultural revolution in decorum. “Institute Sarita is the first step in creating a global etiquette movement,” she says, noting that etiquette really means “showing respect and consideration for others”.
“There has been a fair bit of bad publicity about this first generation of wealthy Chinese,” she says.
Ms Ho, a Hong Kong native, says her best customers are likely to be managers in state-owned enterprises that are increasingly travelling abroad. “They are very keen to learn about how to engage with foreigners; they want to learn an established set of rules for courteousness across cultures.”
Cross-cultural training of the kind that Ms Ho provides is a booming business in China, with courses in western or eastern business or social communication offered by relocation companies, language schools and individuals with varying degrees of qualification. (From FT)
It's saddenting to see so many wealthy Chinese rush to learn etiquette from westerners. China is a country which boasts of 5,000 years of civilization, the oldest in the world. But why its people see western value as superior?