Even Miss Manners might blanch at the task at hand: charm school for a billion people, a good number of them convinced that life means never having to say you’re sorry, excuse me or thank you.
This is no tutorial on fish forks. In advance of the 2008 Olympics, the government has embarked on a crash campaign to instill manners in the world’s most populous country. The effort has left government planners struggling to break some deeply entrenched habits, including public spitting and urinating, driving that evokes a “Road Warrior” set, and an inordinate fondness for cutting in line.
“I think they’re already too late for the Olympics,” said Zhu Wei, manager of the Shanghai Boni Housekeeping Service, a maid-referral agency that uses British butlers to train its staff. “They should have started 20 years ago.”
China hardly has a monopoly on rude behavior. And many give Beijing major kudos for tackling the problem.
“Some people’s manners in China are atrocious, but you have to start somewhere,” said Yue-sai Kan, author of “Etiquette for the Modern Chinese.” “I think it’s great what the government is doing. I wish the New York City government would do this.”
Among various initiatives in manners are televised courses, slogans, billboards and local contests.
China’s politeness push may be more challenging than elsewhere, however, in part because of the country’s history. After the communists took power in 1949, etiquette wasn’t just pushed aside, it was often actively rooted out, sociologists say. That was particularly true during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when refinement was condemned as a ruling-class plot to inhibit people and keep them down.
Now China finds itself playing catch-up as it realizes that commanding global respect means more than just churning out widgets and building five-star hotels.
“Most Chinese are very confident about the hardware for the 2008 Olympics,” said Ge Chenhong, a People’s University professor and government advisor. “But it takes much longer to improve the software, especially the quality of people’s behavior, and that’s a problem.”
In a country where mass campaigns, stage-managed party congresses and pageantry remain important, leaders are hoping to avoid embarrassing scenes at the Olympics.
In April, referees repeatedly chided fans at a world snooker tournament here for their lack of manners, noisy outbursts and jangling cellphones. “Bad behavior left unchecked at one sports event can grow like a cancer and destroy an entire Olympics,” the government-run China Daily newspaper warned the following day.
Then, in July, in what the state press dubbed a “night of shame,” the crowd at a basketball game went ballistic, throwing objects and launching insults after a Chinese player was fouled during a match with Puerto Rico.
Although the Olympics is a major manners motivator, it’s not the only one. Better behavior promises to reduce friction in a society where corruption, growing income disparity and land appropriation make for an increasingly explosive mix.
“Manners are essential for interpersonal communication,” said Li Lulu, dean of the sociology department at People’s University. “Without rules, everyone gets hurt.”
China is sparing no effort in the charm offensive. Daily TV talk shows, dramas and prime-time mini-spots provide lessons nationwide on everything from public fighting to the proper use of cellphones.
Universities hold etiquette contests, slogans on village walls urge farmers to create a civilized society, and neighborhoods take part in “courteous community” competitions.
By the end of the year, “the bad habits of local citizens will be eradicated,” the China Daily declared optimistically in outlining Shanghai’s six-year “Be a Lovable Shanghainese” campaign.
Topping the list of pet peeves in many local surveys is spitting, which not even a campaign linking it to SARS could stop. In fact, some Chinese say it improves your constitution.
Asked mid-spit for his view of the government’s politeness campaign, a resident of Beijing’s Shijingshan district swore, then yelled, “It’s none of your business!” before stomping off.
Other targets of the various campaigns include aggressive jostling, men who lounge half-naked in public, cooking on the street, cutting in line and urinating in public.
“The etiquette of food is another big area,” deportment expert Kan said. “Eating loudly, not knowing what a napkin is for, throwing bones on the table or floor. But anyone who’s seen things over the past 20 years knows it used to be way worse.”
It also used to be much better. Historians note that China -- a nation that perfected the subtleties of good taste and behavior thousands of years ago -- now finds itself lagging. Some attribute this to poverty, limited education and the eradication of an upper class, the traditional champion of good manners.
Others point to the enormous imprint of Mao Tse-tung, a man who often enjoyed flouting convention. “Some people might have considered him coarse and vulgar,” American reporter Edgar Snow said of Mao in his landmark 1938 book, “Red Star Over China.”
Snow described how Mao would scratch himself, remove his clothes and conduct meetings naked when he felt hot, and on occasion “absent-mindedly turn down the belt of his trousers and search for some guests,” namely lice and fleas.
In 1972, Mao attended the funeral of Marshal Chen Yi in his pajamas. And in 1954, he met former British Prime Minister Clement Attlee wearing worn trousers that were patched on the backside. Advised by an aide that he might want to wear a new pair, according to a biography by historian Chen Jin, he replied: “It doesn’t matter. Who will look at my bottom?”
During the Cultural Revolution, it was a compliment to be called dalaocu, or big, rude guy, as leaders sought to upend anything associated with tradition. Nor were manners the only thing destroyed during those years, said Guo Shixing, author of a 1999 play about disrespect titled “Bad Words Street.” By stripping away civility, China often destroyed the fundamental trust between people, a legacy its society is still paying for.
Today, wealth has come so rapidly to some Chinese that they haven’t had time to absorb it. “You see people, yesterday they couldn’t eat, overnight they’re millionaires,” said June Yamada, dean of a Shanghai-based “school of elegance” and author of an etiquette bestseller titled “Tell It Like It Is, June.” “They have no education, but they have money. They still forget to take a bath for three days.”
The government’s good-behavior campaign has its critics. Some say Beijing has launched so many campaigns -- follow the leaders, don’t gamble, create a harmonious society -- that the impact is often lost. Others argue that the dos and don’ts fail to address more fundamental deficits, such as morality and ethics.
Still others, such as Peng Lin, a history professor and Confucius studies expert at Beijing’s Qinghua University, question China’s headlong embrace of Western manners as a way to impress the world. The trend ignores China’s own rich li and yi traditions with their focus on filial piety, mutual obligation and modesty, Peng said.
Government advisor Ge agrees that the ultimate goal should be stronger core values. But a message like “Be a moral person” is too abstract to convey in a 15-second TV spot, she said, although she added that it has to start somewhere.
Etiquette academy dean Yamada prefers to start at the top. “I’d like to teach all of China, but we can’t afford it,” she said. “So our service is limited to the upper class.”
On a recent weekday morning in Shanghai, she and trainer Gigi Pederosa, a former government protocol officer from Peru, ran the Chinese sales staff through its paces at high-end watch seller Patek Philippe. During several hours of role-playing, she instructed them to be polite and warm and to avoid doggedly following customers around the store. “They’re not selling vegetables,” she explained.
Yamada, the daughter of a Taiwanese father and Japanese mother, said business at her school was booming in part because Chinese wanted to be taught by a foreign teacher.
“Many universities have manners classes, but students aren’t fooled by those old Communist Party instructor types,” she said. “These old guys don’t even get it. If they did, they would be coming to my school themselves.”
Businesspeople also are taking a growing interest in proper behavior, in hopes of boosting profits. China’s Alibaba.com, a website launched in 1999 that links Chinese and foreign wholesalers, soon found itself facing a large cultural gap. Even as Chinese companies were becoming more adept at producing mountains of goods at low prices, many employees lacked the manners or sophistication to earn the trust of customers in America or Europe.
Since then, Alibaba has trained more than 5,000 Chinese firms in such basics as responding in a timely way, using polite language and not cheating the customer.
“We’re in a phase where Chinese companies are beginning to think with a longer-term perspective,” said Porter Erisman, Alibaba’s marketing vice president. “People are starting to see that operating in a good, ethical and well-mannered way helps you survive in the long term.”
As local governments educate the masses, they’re trying to clean up their own act. This summer, the Beijing municipal government launched “professional manners education month,” one of several campaigns nationwide. More than 100,000 workers are in training to smile, wear socks to work and use proper hygiene, among other things. A similar Shanghai campaign advises women not to dye their hair green or wear strange dresses.
One of the more obscure things bureaucrats hope to phase out is kaidangku, the open-crotch pants worn by Chinese children that allow them to do their business wherever. Although the pants tend to draw stares from foreigners, defenders say they are comfortable, healthy and hasten the potty-training process.
Huang Wei, 31, an employee of the state TV network and mother of a 4-month-old girl, said she, her mother, grandmother and countless generations wore them, as does her daughter now.
She bristles at the effort to get rid of them, saying: “I don’t see any link between kaidangku and the Olympics. It’s pretty weak. I think the bureaucrats should be more concerned with spitting.”
Kaidangku soon may have a new use, however. Several Chinese websites now promote the pants as romance enhancers. “Laced and convenient for you and your partner,” promises one site. “Transparent, green and charming,” says another.
Yin Lijin in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.