London - They buy more Bentleys than the British, and spend more on Louis Vuitton and Versace than the French or the Italians. But one precious commodity has eluded the Chinese in their rise from peasant nation to superpower: good manners.
Officials are so exasperated by the tendency to spit, shout, slurp and push in at queues that they have taken to pleading and cajoling. It is not long since Shanghai launched a “Seven Nos” campaign: no spitting, no littering, no vandalism, no damaging greenery, no jaywalking, no smoking in public places and no swearing. It was a dismal failure.
Now, however, a school of etiquette has opened in Beijing.
Sara Jane Ho, a Hong Kong businesswoman who grew up in London, is offering lessons in being classy to an exclusive clientele for an appropriately princely sum: courses at her Institute Sarita, based in the five-star Park Hyatt Hotel in Beijing, cost from £2 000 to £10 000 (R27 370 to R136 850).
Dozens of society wives have signed up for lectures on how to use a knife and fork properly, how to peel a piece of fruit, how to greet a prospective mother-in-law, how to walk in heels, and how to eat soup without slurping.
High-powered bosses of Chinese state-owned companies are also hiring Ho for lessons on how to conduct themselves at business meetings in Europe and America.
Ho, a 27-year-old graduate of Harvard Business School, says China misplaced its manners during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Her own family fled and then made its fortune in Hong Kong.
In her plummy British accent, she says: “I am Chinese and 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 to get that last bit of rice to feed your family, you don’t have the luxury to think about etiquette. You’re just trying to survive.”
Converting Beijing’s nouveau riche will be no small task. At an introductory lesson, the nails of the woman students, who arrived in a maelstrom of fur and diamonds, were so ornate they had difficulty handling the cutlery.
“In Hong Kong and London, it is all about subtlety,” says Ho. “In Beijing, I will go out for 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 okay?’ “
Multimillionaire’s wife Zaozao Jiang, one of Ho’s students, says the manners of her countrymen have almost driven her abroad. “I simply can’t abide people who pick their noses, spit and talk too loudly.”
The glamorous 30-year-old Beijing socialite, whose husband heads one of China’s biggest auction houses, adds: “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.”
Zaozao says she is amazed at what she has learnt.
“Before the course, I didn’t know how to wipe my mouth properly with a napkin 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.” Zaozao pauses, then adds with a shudder: “It’s only now that I realise how terribly rude I must have seemed.”
China’s lack of manners has become something of a national embarrassment, with academics openly debating in the state-run media how habits can be changed.
Ho hopes that the perfect manners she is teaching will trickle down to the rest of Chinese society: a new form of cultural revolution. – Daily Mail