For thousands of years wine has been used in rituals to worship gods and pay respects to ancestors in China. Today, this custom has weakened, but Chinese drinking culture is very much alive, being a sign of respect, fellowship and the ultimate bonding tool. Before travelling to China you should learn about the Chinese drinking etiquette!
As crazy as it may sound to some people, drinking (excessively) is a respectable quality in China.
It is even integrated in the Chinese language itself. The word 酒品 (jiupin) literally means “alcohol integrity”, and to some extent is believed to reflect the 人品 (renpin) “personal integrity”.
Drinking in China is therefore an indispensable social ritual. Not among college students, but among mature, grown up men. The goal is not to get wasted (even though it is hard to avoid), but to show that one is trustworthy and upright.
Drinking during family gatherings and business meetings
Some people who have married into a Chinese family will get the opportunity to take part in unlimited family gatherings. Don’t be fooled, even though family members usually might let you off the hook easier than your business partner, you still have to stand your man (or woman). Especially, if it is your first time around visiting your Chinese family.
When I first came to visit my Chinese family, there where gatherings every lunch and dinner time. Meaning excessive drinking. Usually it is easier for woman, but even I had to drink the first few times, as it would have been considered extremely impolite to refuse a toast by your 80 year old grandmother.
It is a totally different situation when you are doing business in China. I have heard my fair share of stories. If you come to China for business, and your goal is to close down that deal, make sure you have a good drinking ability. Some people in China got high up in ranks just because of their drinking ability. The importance of China’s drinking culture cannot be underestimated. The pressure is far greater on men than on women. If you are at a business banquet, and someone, maybe your superior, is offering you a drink, you should never turn it down. Turning down a drink is not just considered impolite but could also be interpreted as disrespectful, and maybe even insulting and a loss of face for the host.
There’s a lot of etiquette associated with toasting and drinking. Here are ten rules you should keep in mind for your next Chinese banquet.
10 Chinese drinking rules
- Drink at least one glass of wine with at least every person at a table
- Never refuse to participate in a toast, it is considered extremely rude
- Unlike Europeans or Americans, in China it is not necessary to look someone in the eye while toasting
- Elderly people and superiors should always be toasted first
- 干杯 ganbei in most cases still means “bottoms up”, if you don’t want to drink the whole cup just say suiyi 随意, which means „as one pleases“
- Do not toast before the boss or host.
- There is no need for an elaborate toast before each drink, but when adressing someone for a toast you should say 敬你一杯 (jing ni yi bei); a repectful way of offering a toast
- If someone proposes a toast and stands up, you should stand up as well. If you toast with a superior you should also stand up to show respect (in many cases they will make you sit down again)
- The one who proposes a toast must drink more than the person toasted
- When proposing a toast, one should raise the glass below the glass of the person toasted, unless one is the host or boss.
Should we accept the drinking culture or refuse it?
Even after all those years in China, I am still struggling with this mentality. I don’t like alcohol, and I don’t like my husband to get drunk. Especially, because they usually offer baijiu, China’s high percentaged wine. Many foreigners are not pushed too hard. I can get off the hook easily because I am a woman. It is another story for my Chinese husband however.
He has to keep drinking for the sake of manners and dignity in public. And that is something I cannot accept. But it is difficult to reject the whole drinking custom. So in the end, to avoid making other people lose face, or to put us into an uncomfortable position, we just don’t take part in gatherings where it is clear from the start that drinking will be involved.
I have to admit that the good adivise I am giving, I have not been observing myself recently. I am on a strike, all out against China’s “drinking culture”. I have had enough of being pushed to drink just for the sake of “giving face” or showing that I am “trustworthy”. It is absurd, and I am strongly opposed to this custom. Maybe now I am considered a very rude “laowai” (foreigner), but you know what? I couldn’t care less. After all it’s my body which would have to suffer the consequenses of an overdose of baijiu…
What are your experiences with China’s drinking culture? Do you enjoy the custom or do you reject the pressure?
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