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‘Always Stay Professional.’ Inside China’s Booming Butler Schools, Nothing But the Best Will Do

6 minute read

They clutch hefty porcelain plates in quivering white-gloved hands, praying the metal warming covers don’t betray a percussion rumble that will incur the instructor’s wrath.

Upon the order to advance, the eight aspiring butlers glide around a long dining table, positioning each plate between the polished silver cutlery. Synchronizing with a hawk-like peripheral gaze, the newbies then whip off the plate covers with a well-rehearsed flourish: lift, flip, pull to side, retreat. Breath is held. Nervous looks exchanged.

“That plate is too close to the table edge, and this one’s crest isn’t centered at the top,” says Florian Lange, a 27-year-old German helming the class. “Please try again.”

Days are long and hard at the International Butler Academy in China’s central city of Chengdu. Founded in 2014, the school has so far trained 100 graduates in the art of domestic service, as decreed by centuries-old canons handed down across generations of European butlers.

Students pay 50,000 rmb ($7,500) for a six-week course on food presentation, how to iron shirts the proper way, and maintaining serene decorum at all times. The course is modeled on the Academy’s parent school in the Netherlands, but adapted for local tastes. Students learn how to choose fine wine but also good Chinese liquor, teach tai chi, perform a tea ceremony and caddy on the golf course. For many, it’s another world.

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“Some of our students in China have never eaten with a knife and fork before,” says Academy founder and CEO Robert Wennekes, who plans to open another school in Shanghai this year to keep up with booming demand.

That demand is owed, in large part, to Downton Abbey, a hit British television drama that covered the lives of servants and landed gentry during and immediately after World War I. Suddenly, China’s wealthy tycoons craved a well-attired servant to wait on their every whim, and millions of young Chinese were mesmerized by the antiquated Edwardian glamor of starched collars and pressed newspapers.

“I became fascinated with this occupation after watching Downton Abbey,” says Yang Yunfei, 24, from Xinjiang, who gave up a job as a court clerk to join the Academy. “But I know real life is not like the TV drama. People warned me about the toughness of this training, but I have never expected it to be this bad.”

Tough means 15-hour days and endless drilling. How to clean a toilet, iron a tablecloth, use tape-measures and plastic blocks to get table placings perfectly aligned. It’s a regiment of burns, blisters and bottomless cups of coffee. Students can expect one afternoon off a week — if they are lucky.

But it’s not as arduous as many graduates find the working world, where 20-hour days are not unusual. Although salaries at 12,000 rmb ($1,500) a month are relatively high, many bosses don’t appreciate that in Europe the relationship between employer and butler is built on mutual respect, understanding and trust.

China has 1,590,000 millionaires — the sixth highest number in the world —though “many times our clients are not very sophisticated,” says Wennekes. “They are used to people almost crawling for them in their companies and whatever they say is like god’s law.”

For graduates, maintaining that aura of unflappability in the face of an abrasive or abusive boss is often the greatest challenge. Many Chinese “principals,” as employers are known in trade parlance, drink heavily, and demand that staff are on hand 24/7.

“You might be down, and you feel angry and lonely, but as a butler you must always stay professional,” says Karen Xiao, the Academy’s director of training.

In the end, though, only around a fifth of graduates actually enter personal service. The majority find work in five-star hotels, swanky private clubs or for real-estate agencies that offer a personal concierge service. Because, other than reflecting the peccadillos of China’s super-rich, the success of China’s butler schools spotlight rising standards of service across the board.

The ravages of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, meant centuries-old etiquettes were purged as feudal and counterrevolutionary. Rather than being lauded, displays of civility became imbued with risk, and Chinese streets thronged with spitting, shoving, bellowing masses.

This began to change following China’s reform and opening in the late 1970s. Economic liberalization brought newfound wealth and an appreciation for the finer things. Generation by generation, Chinese are reacquainting themselves with their jettisoned etiquettes, especially as ever more travel abroad. (Some 120 million Chinese took a foreign vacation last year.) Still, Chinese manners pale in comparison to their Asian peers, such as the gracious, bowing Japanese, or lithe wai greetings of the Thais. “The Chinese are the rudest people in the world, but I love them,” grins Wennekes.

Charles Yu wants to rediscover China’s lost art of service. He is among the roughly half of the Academy’s students who are sent by employers to refine their service skills. Having worked for top hospitality brands like Sheraton, Intercontinental and Royal Caribbean Cruises, he’s familiar with international standards, but wants to create new principles of specifically Chinese service by fusing the best of East and West.

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“If Chinese people go to a restaurant they focus on the taste and the decorations, because that’s how we show hospitality,” says Yu, 43, from Qingdao. “But we have lost one thing, which is the traditional Chinese service.”

Still, China’s infatuation with butlers chafes with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s sweeping anti-corruption drive. Luxury goods brands have reported plummeting sales as ostentatious displays of wealth like bodyguards or golf club memberships now attract unwanted attention. However, butlers ensconced in the home or mansion have so far escaped the crackdown, says Wennekes. And, in fact, he says his Academy has much to offer the Chinese leadership.

“It would be a dream come true if President Xi would invite my school to come to Beijing to train some of his staff,” says Wennekes. “I know they have many foreign dignitaries visiting. It would be nice to help them.”

— With reporting and videography by Zhang Chi / Chengdu and video editing by Aria Chen / Hong Kong

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Write to Charlie Campbell / Chengdu, China at charlie.campbell@time.com