China’s nouveau riche fork out for high-class etiquette


How to properly peel an orange, hold an oyster fork and pronounce luxury brand names — wealthy Chinese are paying handsome sums to learn such skills as they seek to match their high-end lifestyles with high-class etiquette.

A two-week course at the newly opened Institute Sarita in Beijing costs 100,000 yuan ($16,000), but that has not dissuaded dozens of students from across the country from signing up. Most are women in their 40s whose wealth rose fabulously along with China’s breakneck growth in recent decades, said founder Sara Jane Ho.

Their parents survived traumatic hardships under the late leader Mao Zedong, while their children enjoy privileged lives exposed to Western concepts. And they are caught in a constant culture shock, said Ho.

“Today’s nouveau riche women in China are the first to take on all these roles of wife, mother, daughter, businesswoman in this new drastically changed world. There are no precedents, no rules, no person for them to refer to,” she said.

“What my clients want is really a guide, a new Confucius. What they need is a frame of reference and this is what I provide.”

For many participants, the hefty price tag to acquire such knowledge can seem trivial. Ho says her students “easily spend three times that amount” to buy the furs or jewelry introduced in class.

Besides learning to dress with elegance, the women familiarize themselves with wine, elite sports such as golf and riding, English tea service, floral art and table decorating. They learn how to help their husbands and chat with their men’s business associates, reviewing acceptable topics of conversation unlike typically blunt inquiries such as “How much do you earn?” or “Why did you divorce your wife?” as well as how close to stand to others.

“Personal space is something new in China,” said Ho.

The institute, which hosts students at a luxury hotel and formally opened in March, is based on the traditional finishing schools once reserved for young women from well-to-do families in the West, where they have largely disappeared.

Many of the students decide they need help after finding themselves stumped at a fancy engagement, often a Western-style meal. “They don’t dare start (eating) for fear of being ridiculed, for example, with escargot,” said the institute’s head chef.

Harvard sociologist Martin Whyte said Chinese interest in etiquette was to be expected in a society enjoying newfound wealth but lacking a strong, recent “aristocratic tradition.”

They “recognize that being viewed as ‘nouveau riche’ makes them vulnerable to popular criticism,” he said. “They feel a need to demonstrate to the world that they are not just crude money-grubbing upstarts, but have some cultural refinement and civility, and thus might be viewed as honorable wealthy, rather than resented.”