Why are affluent Chinese millennial women flocking to British and German etiquette schools?

Lessons on Western-style etiquette are increasingly gaining in popularity among affluent Chinese millennials. Illustration: Bea [email protected]


When Guillaume Rué de Bernadac, founder of the etiquette coaching institution Academie de Bernadac, started teaching French etiquette to young women in Shanghai, in 2014, the lesson the students found hardest to grasp was how to pose for photographs.

Academié de Bernadac follows the formal “red carpet” Western-style, unlike the more casual Asian way of striking a pose, which usually involves specific hand and/or facial gestures.

“Often, after classes finished, our students would pose in a ‘cute’ way,” recalls de Bernadac, who today is one of China’s best-known savoir-vivre instructors. “So now we have two lessons: one on posing in the Western way, and the other on posing the Asian way.”

A few decades ago, Western etiquette classes on the mainland – which taught socialites how to slice a banana, or hold a teacup elegantly, for example – were brushed off as a passing fad. Today, they form a trend that’s rising quickly among China’s rich, pointing to a desire to adapt with refinement and poise to globalisation, especially in relation to the country’s significant presence on the international scene, while taking pride in Chinese culture and heritage.

According to China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, overseas trips made by Chinese residents grew from 10.5 million in 2000 to 57.4 million in 2010 and 149.7 million in 2018. This spike in travel statistics also came with a few headline-grabbing incidents where Chinese tourists were criticised for inappropriate behaviour, such as throwing coins into plane engines for luck, jumping into animal enclosures in wildlife parks, and littering.

Hong Kong-born businesswoman Sarah Jane Ho (standing) founded Institute Sarita in Beijing in 2013, which teaches Chinese women everything from table manners to grooming. The school also has a branch in Shanghai. Photo: Ben McMillan

Another school helping the country’s elite navigate cross-cultural intricacies is Institute Sarita. Founded by Hong Kong-born businesswoman Sara Jane Ho in Beijing in 2013, it ranks among the pioneers of the Western/international etiquette industry in China. The institute’s second branch opened in Shanghai in 2015. Fees can cost up to 100,000 yuan (US$14,281) for the 12-day hostess course, which is one of the most popular. The current range of lessons is being expanded to include lifestyle lessons.

“It’s not aspirational – etiquette is actually very practical,” says Ho, who graduated from Institut Villa Pierrefeu – Switzerland’s last traditional finishing school – and Harvard Business School in the United States. “It’s about being comfortable and making other people comfortable. It’s about acting with grace even under the most awkward circumstances.”

De Bernadac – who learned etiquette as a child growing up in France, and whose great-grandfather was a private tutor to members of the Moroccan royal family during the reign of Mohammed V – agrees with Ho.

“Simply put, we teach how to give the best of yourself in any social situation,” he says.

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Women in China are paying to learn about Western cultures and manners. Illustration: Bea [email protected]

At Academié de Bernadac, 90 per cent of those who sign up for classes are women between the ages of 25 and 50, usually from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, who “travel frequently outside China and want to act respectfully and be respected when they’re abroad”, says de Bernadac. “They want to be good ambassadors for their country.”

Lessons in table manners are the most popular – how to use a knife and fork, how to eat in an elegant way – as well as deportment and posing for photos. Current programmes on offer include “Divine Deportment”, a three-day course on how to carry oneself (6,988 yuan), and “Elegantly Outstanding”, a one-day course on socialising and table manners (3,888 yuan).

Hosting classes are not offered, and this makes Academié de Bernadac different from the etiquette schools in Europe.

“Having your new boss, or the parents of your daughter’s fiancé around for dinner just isn’t a part of Chinese culture,” de Bernadac explains.

Besides the business-to-consumer (B2C) model of signing up, another sector is business-to-business-to-consumer (B2B2C), through which luxury brands buy classes for VIP customers.

Ho claims Institute Sarita has served “every single brand you can think of” in this way. Hermès, for example, hired her to coach 20 of the biggest customers frequenting its maison in Hangzhou.

According to Shaun Rein, founder of the consultancy firm China Market Research, luxury consumption on the mainland has matured. Demand for gaudy bling and fake merchandise, which dominated some 15 years ago, has evolved into taste and appreciation for genuine, luxurious and high- quality products. “It’s no longer enough to tote a Chanel handbag if you don’t have the elegance to carry it off,” says Rein. “In the past few years, the focus has been on education and manners. You might have a farmer or factory worker who became rich because he was brilliant in business. But he’s looked down on for his lack of manners. He doesn’t want the next generation to be the same.”

Another channel for etiquette schools in China is via business-to-business (B2B). Five-star hotels and luxury brands – from Gucci, Givenchy and Cartier to the Ritz-Carlton, Waldorf Astoria, InterContinental and St Regis – have employed de Bernadac to instruct their staff. And coaching for butlers is also in demand.

Guillaume Rué de Bernadac, founder of etiquette school Academie de Bernadac, says classes in deportment – how to stand and walk elegantly – are among the most popular. Photo: Handout

Significantly, China is in the process of developing a national system called Social Credit, as a way of improving governance and market order, and incentivising citizen and corporate behaviour. For example, fraudulent and antisocial behaviour would bring down the total scores, while making charitable donations and taking on voluntary work contribute points.

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De Bernadac is hoping the system will have a positive impact on his business, especially if the scope of behaviour is widened to include basic etiquette.

Local government is also catching on. Shanghai’s municipal government, for example, recently enlisted de Bernadac’s academy to train hospital staff in handling the public in different situations, and to teach schoolchildren how to be well-mannered on trips abroad. The contract involves a total of 600 lessons – each three hours long – in a single month. Too big a challenge for the six instructors Academié de Bernadac employs, de Bernadac consequently trained local teachers, who in turn led the lessons. This is something else the academy will soon offer, he says: etiquette training specifically for teachers.

Demand for VIP-training events from cosmetics, fashion and jewellery brands is also enormous, according to de Bernadac, who says Academie de Bernadac’s annual growth ranges between 30 and 100 per cent for each of the six years it has been in business.

Meanwhile, other etiquette schools are jumping on the bandwagon, from local companies to branches of Western outfits. London-based British Etiquette Tutors, for example, recently opened an office in Beijing, while other new players include Stanhope Etiquette School in Shanghai and Chengli Academy in Beijing.

Etiquette classes are also mushrooming online. Illustration: Bea [email protected]

Etiquette classes are also mushrooming online. Ho is working on producing digital lessons via WeChat that will enable her to reach beyond tier one cities – she believes the potential of tapping tier two, three and four cities in China is colossal. Her “virtual etiquette school” – which she says will be an extension of her finishing school – will consist mostly of video tutorials (it was due to be launched around Lunar New Year at the time of going to print). Academié de Bernadac is taking its business online next year.

Reciprocally, the number of people around the world interested in China is growing, from learning the Mandarin language to understanding Confucianism and Taoism. For example, the US-China Strong Foundation in Washington, DC, predicts the number of US residents studying Mandarin will reach one million in 2020.

Institute Sarita offers virtual courses in Chinese business etiquette on various topics, including traditional banquets, greetings, and formal titles. De Bernadac, who says his academy has a large number of Western followers on social media, will launch a course in summer (3,888 yuan per day) that will cover Chinese dining, business and social manners.

Note: This story was originally published on SCMP and has been republished on this website.