The most popular class at the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Trade does not teach wannabe entrepreneurs the secrets of accounting or international law. Instead, Professor Li Zhiguo instructs his 1,600 students on a graver subject: manners. A line, he lectures, should be an orderly procession, not a rowdy scrum. Spitting on the street is not nice. When eating a Western meal, the diner should cut meat into small pieces with a fork and knife, although that should never be done to bread. And remember: if hosting Americans at a restaurant, don't order endangered species or internal organs. "We think they are delicacies, but Americans think they are disgusting," he says, as students scribble down the tips.
China may claim 5,000 years of civilization--as locals often remind visitors from younger nations--but over the past half-century most of the country forgot its collective manners. Mao Zedong, the founder of the People's Republic, considered teeth brushing a Western affectation and thought nothing of greeting international dignitaries while wearing patched trousers. Although China has mostly shed Chairman Mao's class-busting ideology and cities like Shanghai boast skyscrapers and bustling shopping malls, the deportment of some citizens evokes an era of subsistence. Even some members of the new bourgeoisie indulge in conspicuously boorish behavior, like hawking phlegm onto the pavement or picking their noses at business meetings. "Chinese have gotten rich so fast, they haven't had time to learn the manners that usually go along with wealth," says Hedy Lee, a Chinese-American etiquette educator in Beijing, who recalls a recent sign in her apartment's elevator requesting residents not to urinate or defecate in it. "If we want to be members of the global community, we have to break those bad habits."
As China prepares to be host to the Olympics in 2008, officials have begun to acknowledge the need to raise the level of public civility in order to show the world the country's advances after just three decades of economic reform. Once the flood of foreign visitors recedes, bureaucrats hope the manners makeover will stick with Chinese citizens and help make their cities more livable. "We are quite behind when it comes to fundamental etiquette," concedes Chen Zhenmin, deputy director of the Shanghai Spiritual Civilization Office. In Shanghai, China's most cosmopolitan city, local leaders have unveiled a campaign called "Be a Lovely Shanghainese" that instructs citizens to give up bus seats to the elderly, urinate directly into the toilet and refrain from stealing plants from parks. The campaign has recruited 800,000 volunteers to help direct Shanghai's chaotic traffic and asks civil servants not to dye their hair exotic shades like red, green or blue.