Photo: Asia Images Group/Shutterstock

A Westerner's Guide to Chinese Drinking Culture

by Agnieszka Walulik Jun 21, 2012
Chinese drinking culture applies to Westerners as well. Too bad hangovers aren’t country-specific.

A HANDFUL OF RULES, in case you find yourself at a Chinese party — and by this I mean fully Chinese, as in your Chinese boss or business partner invites you for dinner and you’re the only foreigner there (drinking with young Chinese people in mixed company doesn’t count — they’ll do things ‘our’ way). Hope you find them useful.

Drying the cup (ganbei)

Whatever you’re drinking — baijiu (Chinese liquor), vodka, beer, wine — forget your fancy ideas of savouring the bouquet and whatnot. You’ll be doing toasts one after another, and toasts mean drinking up. It’s called ganbei, which translates literally as “drying the cup.” You’d better do it, or be forever branded as a disrespectful sissy.

Be respectful (jing jiu)

People will likely toast you to show their respect and hospitality. As a foreigner, you’re not expected to do likewise, but it will be much appreciated if you do. Once you’ve started, make sure you toast everyone who might outrank you. It’s called jing jiu: “respectfully proposing a drink.” If the people are many and you’re worried your head might not take it well, you can tick them off in twos and threes; it’s perfectly acceptable.

If you want to impress your hosts even more, remember to hold your glass in both hands.

Remember: if you’re the one offering the toast, you’re putting yourself in an inferior position, which means you have to be the more respectful one. Thus, it’s better if you stand up and empty your cup completely. The other person may remain seated and drink just a bit, but usually they will go out of their way to show you the same respect — it’s just good manners. If you want to impress your hosts even more, remember to hold your glass in both hands (one propping up the bottom). Afterwards you can tip it slightly towards the person you were drinking with to show them you’ve drunk up.

Clinking glasses

This one’s tricky and very easy to overlook. If the party is big and everyone is toasting at the same time, instead of getting up and clinking with everyone else, people might simply clink the surface of the table with the bottom of the glass. But if you’re toasting one or two people, they’ll usually want to clink glasses, even if the table is very big. If you do this, try to make sure that the brink of your glass is lower then theirs; it’s another way of showing respect.

Usually they’ll try doing it as well, but if your respective positions are quite obvious, they won’t try too hard as it would be false modesty. The situation gets tricky when both persons hold more or less the same status, then the glasses might keep going down and down, until they actually land on the table and no one can go lower anymore.

But that’s not all; if you clink with the actual glass, it means you want to ganbei — bottoms up. If you’d rather avoid it, you can hold your glass so that you touch the other person’s cup with the backs of your fingers. In this way you signal that you’d prefer to take it slowly, or suiyi – “as you wish” (although it still doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get away with it). This is not an option if you’re the one proposing the toast to someone senior; in that case you have to empty the glass and that’s it.

Courage, quantity, and quality
The running opinion is that Westerners can drink much more than Asians.

It’s perfectly all right if you get drunk, even during business dinners. In fact, it’s kind of expected. If you leave sober, your hosts might think they’ve failed to show the proper hospitality. As a foreigner you might be required to drink even more, since the running opinion is that Westerners can drink much more than Asians. Then again, in China, as everywhere else, it’s a point of pride to be able to hold your drink.

The bottom line is, it’s best if you drink whatever they give you. This is called jiudan — “drink courage” — and the more you have of it, the better. Of course having jiudan doesn’t authomatically mean you have a good jiuliang — “drinking capacity” or the ability to hold your drink. But this really doesn’t matter, as long as you have good jiupin — “drink manners” or meaning the way you behave when inebriated. Ideally you’ll have all three, but if you don’t, the first one is the most important.

Chinese liquor

After reading the last point I can see a lot of people thinking, “wow, that’s great! I can drink all I want, I’ll probably outdrink everyone else and if I don’t, they’ll like me all the more for it!” Fair enough, Western people usually can drink more than Asians. But let’s not get too cocky.

First, the alcohol you’ll be drinking will not necessarily be to your liking. I’ve yet to find a foreigner who says they actually like drinking baijiu or gaoliang jiu (Chinese rice and sorghum liquors, as strong as vodka), which is what will likely be served. If you have a choice, you might prefer huangjiu — less strong and very sweet, definitely tastier to our unaccustomed palate.

Nowadays beer is also a popular choice; if that’s what’s served, you’re safe, as Chinese beer is much weaker than Western. That being so, you’ll have to drink up whole glassfuls of it. At least make sure they give it to you cold and not tepid, as they often drink it.

Exit strategies

Sometimes you’ll just want to stay sober. And yes, there are ways to do it. For example, you might not be forced to drink if you’re driving. Or if you’re a woman. Chinese women and, by extension, all women are not required to drink as much. Or if you remember to pretend from the beginning that you “just don’t drink” — but then you you have to stick to it til the end, so make your choice wisely.

But the best thing you can do to keep yourself in order is: eat.

Sometimes when you’ve really had enough, you might toast with water or tea (although if you’ve already shown that you can drink a lot, they might just laugh at you for not having enough “drink courage”). But the best thing you can do to keep yourself in order is: eat. Eat, eat, and never stop.

It’s a Chinese banquet, so there’ll be plenty of fatty food on the table. If there’s liquor to be drunk, shovel it up even if you’re on the point of bursting. If you’re vegetarian — or, worse, vegan — remember to fill up at home as most likely there’ll be precious little you can eat (I’ve seen my vegan German flatmate trapped in this situation once. He held out bravely, but the next day he said it wasn’t pretty).

If all this seems a bit daunting, don’t worry too much. Your hosts know you’re used to a different way of doing things and they’ll not expect you to follow their rules. If you observe them, you’re scoring extra points, but nothing bad will happen if you get it wrong. They simply want to make you feel welcome. So just put on a big smile, enjoy the hospitality and — drink up whatever they give you. Ganbei!

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