The Korea Herald


Wealthy Chinese fork out for high-class etiquette

By Korea Herald

Published : July 26, 2013 - 20:21

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BEIJING (AFP) ― 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, says founder Sarah Jane Ho.

They learn how to help their husbands and chat with their men’s business associates ― reviewing acceptable topics of conversation unlike typically blunt enquires such as “How much do you earn?” or “Why did you divorce your wife?” ― and how close to stand to others.

“Personal space is something new in China,” says Ho, who tells students to “keep your elbows close to your body”.

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.

Ho, a Harvard graduate who speaks five languages, herself attended the Institut Villa Pierrefeu, often called the last Swiss finishing school.

Many of her 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, who she recruited from the French embassy.

Jocelyn Wang, 24, says the intricacies of Western dining protocol were among the most valuable lessons of her 10-day course at Institute Sarita.

“I think the way someone eats ― how they hold their fork and knife, the way they eat their food ― can say a lot about their etiquette and their temperament,” she says, adding that such topics were not widely taught in China.

During her 9-to-6 sessions she says she used rulers to measure the precise placement of forks and knives and toured art galleries, taking notes and collecting class handouts along the way.

But the detailed instruction also impressed upon her the need for non-teachable qualities such as poise, taste and confidence.

There are differences between aristocracy and nouveaux riche, says Wang, who is studying globalization for a master’s degree in London.

“We have a really good life, at least materially speaking, so we can’t just be unrefined.”

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.”