China's Drinking Culture

Business bacchanals in China are legendary.  Imbibing with others fosters a more personal connection by softening and reducing the distance between them, whether distance due to status difference or due to familiarity.

This has, however, also fostered a “drinking culture” where the ability to drink can have a great impact on one’s success. Alcohol is used as a social lubricant to help cement relationships that are so important to China’s relationship-based business dealings.  As drinking is equated with integrity and trust, it can provide the foundation for building the all-important network of connections. In fact, it’s not unheard of for job listings to include a preference for someone “with a good drinking capacity”!

At a formal meal, drinking starts by the host offering a toast to the group and the most honored guest, looking directly at the guest and exclaiming something like, “to an enduring friendship and successful business venture.” Highly potent baijiu (80-120 proof) is often used for this toast. Although the cups are generally quite small, the toast ends with “Gam Bei!” – literally “dry glass” or “bottoms up” – and the drinkers may turn their glasses upside down over their heads to prove it.

At a formal banquet, toasting is an on-going ritual, with a toast at each of the 8-10 courses. The honored guest returns the toast to the host on the third course but there are also intermittent toasts along a hierarchical order. If it is a large group with multiple tables, after the most senior host has offered a toast to the guest of honor and the group, the second most senior host may offer a toast to the second most senior guest and the group.

Once those toasts have been made, toward the end of the night the host will often go to the other banquet tables and, while standing, toast the guests at each of those tables. Some at those tables might then go around toasting other tables as well. While sitting at the table, if you are the guest, it's likely that multiple members seated at the table will toast you individually.

Drinking “gives face” to the host, so as the toasting abounds, there’s almost no graceful way out. In fact, the toasting may start with polite urging, but progress to stronger prods, such as “If you have goodwill toward me, drink another toast!” As the night goes on, the drinking carries on with the after-dinner entertainment, further strengthening the bond and goodwill among the members.

Especially during the formal dinner, there are some rules to keep in mind.

  • Don’t drink before the host offers the first toast.
  • Don’t drink alone: offer a toast or catch someone’s eye and raise your glass in toast to the person.
  • When clinking cups or glasses, the person of lower status should have his or her glass slightly lower. (If the relative status is not precisely clear, this can lead to a game of “one-downs-man-ship.”)
  • Avoid pouring your own drink.
  • If this is business entertainment, don’t bring your spouse.

The drinking culture varies by location, from the more moderate Shanghai to the hardcore northeast. And you may also find red wine fast becoming the drink of choice due to its perceived health benefits.

However, if drinking large quantities of liquor is not one of your strengths, you may want to read: Drinking in China – and Surviving!

By Diana Rowland

with thanks to William Irion and Wayne Chan

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