Finishing school, Chinese style

Be polite even though I'm super rich and busy? Sara Jane Ho puts China's very important people to a global test. 

Andy Wong/AP
Chinese women have a chat near a plum tree at a public park in Beijing Sunday.

How’s this for a Chinese start-up? Finishing school.

Sara Jane Ho, a well-groomed young woman from Hong Kong, has just launched what she calls Beijing’s first “high end boutique finishing school” to teach China’s nouveau riche how to behave.

Good manners are not necessarily deeply instilled in your average Chinese citizen, and here I am being as polite as Ms. Ho teaches her students to be. But as she points out, only 50 years ago, people here “were fighting to get to the front of the food ration line, for survival. They were not thinking of manners.”

Today, though, wealthy Chinese businesswomen, housewives, and ladies of leisure are anxious to learn the social skills of their Western counterparts. And for a cool $15,000 for a 12-day course, Ho will initiate them into the mysteries of foreign etiquette at her Institute Sarita.

She has the background – both a business degree from Harvard and an etiquette diploma from the Institute Villa Pierrefeu, a Swiss finishing school – and she covers all the bases.

One moment her clients, gathered in Ho’s plush offices in the Park Hyatt Residences in downtown Beijing, will be learning what “black tie” means; the next moment they are practicing the correct pronunciation of “Louis Vuitton” or being given the “Introduction to Expensive Sports” course, which explains why they ought to enjoy horseback riding.

Predictably, perhaps, for women accustomed to eating even the grandest banquet with a simple pair of chopsticks, laying a Western table and learning how to handle knives and forks are especially puzzling skills. Nor does Ho make it easy: Her students have to remember such arcane details as the difference between the fork for extracting snails from their shells and the fork used to eat oysters.

But Ho says she also hopes to give etiquette a deeper meaning, to teach “the philosophy behind the mechanics.”

“Good manners go along with good morals,” she preaches, with a nod to Confucius. “Virtuous people do not commit murder … and nor do they behave in obnoxious ways when they travel.”

In the end, she points out, good manners are the same the world over once you get past such questions of which hand you should hold your fork in. “Good manners means respect for other people,” says Ho, and that is something that some of China’s new rich find even harder to learn than how to distinguish a Californian Chardonnay from a Bordeaux claret.

“I tell them [my clients] that they have to treat people as people no matter who they are speaking to,” she says. “You are not above other people just because you are in a rush or have more money. But that takes a long time to learn.” 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Finishing school, Chinese style
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today