The Growing Popularity of Western Etiquette in China
I was recently offered the post of Instructor to Chinese women aged 30 years and upwards who wanted to learn about British etiquette.
I responded politely (there's the British etiquette kicking in), by reigning in my instinct to laugh outloud, enquiring instead why this organisation had headhunted me? Did they think that by virtue of my accent and place of birth I actually hung out with the Queen on a regular basis? If so they were about to be sadly disappointed.
I didn't take the job because I wouldn't have been able to do it with any seriousness. Would women really spend good money just to be taught how to hold a tea cup and saucer, or fold a napkin?
However it did get me thinking about the whole idea and, after some research, I've since discovered that learning about British etiquette in the pursuit of exhibiting more refined behaviour is becoming increasingly popular in China.
Who'd a thunk it? Er, I mean, whomever would have believed such a thing?
China's Newly Rich Discuss Wine Etiquette
The Trend Towards British Etiquette Is Gaining Ground.
WithIn China's big cities, private training centres are rapidly springing up offering expensive courses on deportment.
These courses are gladly received by young and not so young wives, single women and even children.
Although frankly speaking, it's really the rich parents of these children who insist that they attend. I can't imagine any nine year old requesting to be taught how to drink tea from porcelain china with her little finger cocked in the air.
Deciphering A Place Setting
Where Did This Interest Come From?
Personally, I blame Downton Abbey and Sherlock Holmes.
These programmes are shown frequently online and across Chinese networks and are immensly popular with all age groups.
However, I feel that they've presented a distorted view of a Britain which very few people actually inhabit and which, to be honest, is a little old-fashioned.
It makes sense for British people to indulge in the era of nostalgia presented here, but why would Chinese people rush to celebrate a by-gone age from an alien culture?
British Etiquette In China. What Do You Think?
It's a good idea to be immersed in another culture from time to time.
Straight From The Horse's Mouth
I asked some of my Chinese male and female friends about this fascination with British manners and etiquette. I wanted to know their thoughts on this current fad.
Their answers were interesting. One man said that it wasn't really a fad. He proferred that Chinese people have always considered the British to be the epitome of good manners and many have tried to emulate them. Shows like Downton Abbey and Sherlock Holmes only reinforce the common thought.
Another lady stated that many women were willing to pay high prices for such courses for two main reasons;
a) Wives of businessmen were anxious to make a good impression in Europe thereby dispelling negative stereotypes of Chinese people.
b) Etiquette courses gave them an insight into another world. They felt that they were touching the edge of Royalty, such as the highly esteemed Kate Middleton and who doesn't love seeing how the other half live?
The Pulling Power Of British Etiquette
Their responses intrigued me and I wanted to go deeper so I plotted out a path of research in order to discern four things;
1) What actually takes place during a British Etiquette course in China?
2) Who attends?
3) How much do they pay?
4) Who are the teachers and what makes them qualified to teach the nuances and grace of British etiquette?
A Detailed Place Setting According To Rules of Etiquette
Carefully Place A Book On Your Head And Slowly Walk This Way
From the moment you walk into the large room the scene is set and you're transported from downtown China to the drawing room of an English country manor.
Everything has been prepared, from the ambience to the extravagant table setting, to the hushed tones of the instructor and participants.
In a room cloaked in lush decor with brushed silk or thick velour floor to ceiling curtains, carpetted in rich tones and sumptuous chairs with padded cushions which welcome your posterior, learners are embraced by genteel Britishness at its finest.
What Happens During An Etiquette Course
Initially a presentation is given detailing the background of etiquette and its uses in modern day society.
At the end of the presentation participants are told what to expect from the day or days ahead. From what I understand courses usually span one to three days, sometimes longer and can be taken in private or in small groups.
At the end of the course you'll receive certification as proof that you now know the correct way to make and drink English tea, to conduct polite conversation, to hold a knife and fork correctly as well as which cutlery to use and how to choose and handle fine wine.
Welcome Ladies And Children
Attendees, as I mentioned earlier, tend to be women in their 30's and above. They are undoubtedly rich or the wives of businessmen. Courses are also run for children and the majority of participants, again, tend to be girls.
These women are likely to be well educated and well travelled outside of Asia. Their companies and businesses may have European partners requiring them to frequent places like Italy, Germany and the UK. They're likely to speak English well and may have studied abroad at an American or English university, in some cases up to Master or PhD level.
Despite such accomplishments they may still feel that something is lacking, or, if they're not working or the business is taking care of itself, a course in British Etiquette could be seen as the thing to fill the gap, for now.
In addition there is also the feeling of not wanting to miss the bandwagon. If everyone in their peer group is doing it, they may not want to be the odd one out.
The Motivation For Seeking Out Etiquette Lessons
I asked some more of my Chinese friends about the motives for doing a course like this.
One woman stated that people may not take it too seriously, despite the high price tag and will see it as something to be done, 'just for fun.'
Another man said that some women do it in the hopes of catching a rich western husband!
Yet another friend thought that it could be a way to distance themselves from Chinese who behave badly abroad, exhibiting poor manners and lack of social skills.
How Much Do Courses Actually Cost?
Seems almost like a contradiction to be bringing up money when discussing a course on etiquette, but I've teased you several times with notes on how expensive it is so now I'll briefly give you the details and then we'll quickly move on as we don't want to appear too vulgar.
Asking around I was quoted wildly varying prices. From $700 for a one day course to $16,000 for a four day course. Make-up sessions and tips, interview techniques and lifestyle make-overs are added extras.
James Hebbert Teaches British Etiquette
There doesn't appear to be a commonality of background with the teachers who present these courses. Some are Chinese, some are British. Some are men, some are women and all of them have varied backgrounds.
A popular trainer is James Hebbert, managing director of Seatton, a British culture and etiquette company based in China.
He states; "It used to be China's rich were all about buying luxury brands to show their status, but now the focus is on consuming knowledge as a way to differentiate,"
His work involves traveling around China imparting his expertise in areas such as how to shake hands correctly, how to tie a tie, use cutlery, make eye contact and dress for any occasion. His primary goal is to help clients avoid losing face in unfamiliar situations.
Sara Jane Ho is the founder of Beijing based finishing school, Institute Sarita. Her classes target the top level tier of China's wealthy and include hostess school and a 10 day deubtante course.
She says; "Our students are leaders in their social and business circles and it's hard for them to find a teacher they respect. Our teachers live the life that our students are living and understand their needs."
As far as I know, daughters of the rich and almost rich of America and the UK are sent to finishing school in Switzerland. There they learn impeccable manners and the finer points of western etiquette. (Where are the daughters of wealthy Swiss people sent for finishing school, etc? Just a thought).
So Britain has become the Chinese Switzerland for adding the final (or possibly the first) touches and groundwork for good grooming.
Does this mean that in a few years time there'll be women and children all over China emulating the British Royals? Or could the whole thing be just another fad which dies out when the nouveau riche find other toys on which to spend their money and expand their lifestyle repertoire?
Only time will tell.