Global Glance: January 23, 2017
A quick look at intriguing international stories
By John Bostwick, Managing Editor, Radius
The Rise of the Butler in China
Global income inequality is reflected in some astonishing numbers. In a June post I mentioned that, according to Oxfam International and world population statistics, if the poorest half of the world’s population pooled their wealth, they still wouldn’t have as much as the world’s 62 richest individuals. Six months later, those numbers have been updated and they’re even more staggering. According to an Oxfam report released last week, just “eight men own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity.”
The rise of the super-rich is particularly acute in China. Last fall, Forbes identified 400 billionaires and billionaire families in mainland China alone, up from 335 in 2015. Given these numbers — and related sensational tales like those involving Chinese kids abroad “burning wads of cash” — it’s easy to forget that many Chinese citizens are old enough to remember the brutal and bloody Cultural Revolution. A review-article in the current issue of The New York Review of Books reminds us that not only nationalists, but “landlords, wealthy farmers, rightists … and capitalists” were considered “black elements” during the Revolution, and countless were slaughtered. The Review says that in the space of just two months in 1967 in the region around Daoxian (a southern county of China), more than 9,000 people were murdered in ideological purges.
One of the legacies of the Cultural Revolution is that China’s current, large and growing class of super-rich is almost necessarily nouveau riche. China’s pre-communist wealthy families, and the servant class and traditions associated with them, were swept away by the Revolution. As a result, China’s current super-rich have essentially entered new cultural territory without a map. How should they act at home and abroad in the historical wake of a purge designed to do away with people like them?
Many of China’s super-rich have turned to the West for guidance, in particular to the UK tradition of employing a butler to oversee staff and household operations. A spate of articles has documented this development over the last few years, the most recent being a New York Times piece this month titled “Rich Chinese, Inspired by ‘Downton,’ Fuel Demand for Butlers.”
The article notes that China’s new breed of self-made, maverick entrepreneurs has been characterized by their “raw and raucous” behavior. But they are now “aspiring to old-school decorum, fueling demand for the services of homegrown butlers trained in the ways of a British manor.” As a result, schools devoted to training butlers are proliferating in China, and, according to the Times, “the number of recruits has grown sharply in recent years, according to those in the business.”
Not surprisingly, many of the training academies in China are foreign-owned, including the Dutch-owned International Butler Academy in Chengdu. GQ’s “The Real Butlers of the .001 Percent,” takes a closer look at the trend of the super-rich hiring “Euro-aristocratic” butlers (not only in China, but in Russia and the Middle East). And while the number of local recruits may be on the rise in China, there is still considerable cachet in hiring a Brit. GQ quotes the founder of the butler-training and staffing agency Bespoke Bureau, who says, “For the Chinese, it’s a status thing. ... They’re like, ‘Just send us somebody who looks British, who looks European.’”
As the title of the Times article makes clear, the rise of the butler in China is partly attributable to the popularity of the soap-operatic period drama Downton Abbey. A 2013 Express article reported that the series, “with its depiction of the landed classes and their servants redolent of China before the Cultural Revolution,” had a Chinese viewership of over 160 million, and in particular was a “hit with educated and aspirational Chinese who want to emulate the British way of life.” The GQ article picks up on this theme: “Downton works as a tidy, albeit dated, guide to the type of class-obsessed society that Communist China spent decades resisting. The show depicts the type of have-it-all service that the modern upper crust of China is eager to re-create at home.”
In other words, the super-rich in China are hiring butlers in part to teach them (the super-rich) how to behave like respectable, traditional members of the upper class, i.e., like “old money.” A New Yorker article on China’s butler boom quotes an instructor at Chengdu’s International Butler Academy as saying that many Chinese employers (or “principals” in butler-speak) want guidance on how to confidently negotiate the nuances of elite society, like “what to wear to certain occasions, how to behave at a formal dinner, how to use a knife and fork.” This last part is particularly telling, as traditional European butlers — and aristocrats — don’t deal with chopsticks. A CNN article on the subject quotes a trainer at Chengdu’s International Butler Academy as saying that teaching recruits how to use a knife and fork is paramount: "We use them every day but to them it's inherently foreign."
Other articles indicate that the very idea of butlers — a class of servants long associated with a kind of respectable haughtiness — is deeply anathema to the Chinese. A CBS News article explains that “cultural factors can make it difficult to teach butler skills in China,” both because the Cultural Revolution “sought to eradicate any notions of elitism in society” and because “decades of the one-child policy have meant many younger Chinese are accustomed to being the center of attention in their families.” A local graduate of the International Butler Academy in Chengdu quoted by CNN observes: “In China, service often has a negative connotation, suggesting that you are inferior to the one you are serving. That's not the case in the Western mindset; everyone is equal, even though you are the provider of the service.”
As China makes efforts to transition its economy “from industry towards services,” local attitudes about service workers — from butlers to fast-food cashiers — will almost certainly evolve. The country’s fascination with Downton Abbey may have been sparked partly by Chinese citizens' awarness that they are heading down a similar path, toward a world of the servants and the served.