Elitism, aristocracy and rising income gap

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2019/11/7 19:13:40

Photo: IC

In keeping with her profession, Tian Pujun can put up a show of elitism. Away from the arc lights, the former B-list Chinese actress makes sure she is under public spotlight being the second wife of real estate tycoon Wang Shi. This is not only because of the 30-year age difference between them, but also because Tian has been trying to cultivate an image of a thought leader by writing commentaries and essays that some readers find full of elitism, vanity and conceit.

So it was not a surprise when an article by Tian recently went viral online and triggered another mini-earthquake of reactions, even though it was written three years ago. But this time, what she penned may also reflect an alarming undercurrent in China.   

In the article, published by the Chinese edition of Esquire and headlined - "It Takes Three Generations to Cultivate An Aristocrat," Tian pours out her admiration for the aristocratic culture in the UK, which she witnessed while accompanying Wang to Oxford University when he was a visiting scholar. Among the things she disclosed were not only the table manners but also the way waiters served the Wi-Fi password to querying guests at a plush banquet - the password on a piece of paper was placed in a silver cup and delivered on a plate with utmost courtesy. 

In 2015, she launched (with Wang's help) the Chengli Academy in Beijing, the first school in China teaching aristocratic etiquette. A recent course it ran for the Chinese included high tea manners, rowing, and chatting with a granddaughter of Winston Churchill and another woman related to the British royal family. The year-long course, organized in various cities including London and New York, cost 990,000 yuan (about $141,428). 

In the Esquire article, Tian also called on the Chinese to learn etiquette so they could appear cultured. 

When the article finally got attention online this autumn most critics aimed their darts at Tian - her oversimplified understanding of aristocracy, her thinly veiled contempt for the manners of Chinese, and her use of the opportunities, connections and deep pockets provided by her husband.

But few people questioned the concept of aristocracy itself. Indeed, some of Tian's fiercest critics pointed out that rather than some old fashioned behavioral code, the essence of aristocracy is based on integrity, decency and responsibility.

The comments contain some truth. Going back through the centuries, there isn't so much difference between European aristocrats with their privileges, estates and tax exemptions - all often granted by a monarch and then passed onto generation after generation - and the noble class in ancient China, who gained their status initially from the emperor. Both had strict and complex rules of etiquette. One would know only by reading Dream of the Red Chamber, the classical novel depicting the heyday and the subsequent decline of a Chinese noble family in the 18th century.

A major difference now, of course, is that the noble titles in many European countries are still passed onto the next generation but in China they were abolished in the 1930s.

The timing of the brouhaha about aristocracy triggered by Tian's article is a curious one. On one hand, this is a time when China has produced the second highest number of billionaires in the world, after the US. And the first group of "second generation rich" of the Chinese mainland - those born into rich families - has just come of age. If you believe the title of Tian's article, China is only one generation away from having its new class of qualified nobles.  

On the other hand, the sense of upward mobility and meritocracy in China, which saw stunning growth in the 1980s through the 2000s, has clearly slowed down. Recent studies show that inequality is growing rapidly in China, which is fast catching up with the US in this regard. 

Tian may have almost unintentionally tapped into the psyche of the new ruling class in China. The essence of aristocracy, above all, is its function as a fortification of the social pyramid. And the admiration of aristocracy among some nouveau riche in China may have revealed a still subconscious desire to strengthen their positions at the top. It is a passcode to a lethargic society be it delivered in a silver cup or not.   

The author is a New York-based journalist and Alicia Patterson fellow. rong_xiaoqing@hotmail.com


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