Heavy drinking can go hand - in - hand with business in China, and repeated “Gam Bei-ing” (downing drinks) gives your host face. If you’re not able to drink, or can drink but want to protect your company’s face by not acting foolish, you’d better have a plan, unless you hold your liquor very well.
If you can’t drink at all, let them know upfront so no one is offended, but you should have a good excuse. Acceptable excuses are religious reasons, doctor’s orders, an allergy, or a liver condition. If living in China, “I have to drive” is the current best and most frequently used excuse. But be prepared to help liven things up to make sure you’re not a downer to those downing drinks. Contribute heartily to the fun and accept some good humored ribbing if it comes your way.
In general, while excuses are accepted politely, they are not completely accepted or believed by most of the older generations. As drinking has been considered a clever way of judging a person’s character, the older generations may believe something is not right if you will not drink with them. They may feel there remains a distance between you.
But an interesting and useful acceptable tactic is to name a representative on your team to do the drinking for you. Make sure your person can handle his liquor, and be forewarned that if you elect a substitute drinker, he must be someone who can really drink, no matter what he says.
If you can drink, but value your liver, here are some other strategies:
Since members of the other team may toast the guests individually, don’t be outnumbered. Don’t be the 1 or 2 people drinking 10 toasts to their one.
If the toasts are with the potent baijiu, switch to wine or beer. Do it surreptitiously as people get more drunk, or tell them you are only accustomed to one of these (both of these drinks are often served along with the baijiu).
Put your glass to your lips and tilt it toward your mouth as though you’re taking a big swig, but in reality just let it splash against your lips. Maybe a little will slip into your mouth, but it will be minimal.
Eat. This may help you miss a Gam Bei or two because your mouth is full, and high protein–high fat foods help minimize the effects.
Drink water in between drinks or slip water in with your white wine on the sly. However, be very careful - as the foreigner and guest you are being carefully watched, so little that you do is really missed.
If you are drinking beer or a whiskey, when people aren't looking, you can sometimes pour tea into your cup, as it has the same color. (Again, caution is recommended.)
Especially if you are older, you can appoint a younger representative part way through the evening.
Women are not expected to drink, or not expected to drink much, but some claim you get more points if you do. (Among the younger generations, however, women often keep up with – or even outpace – the men.)
And last but not least you can help tone things down by making a toast that provides options. Try ending your toast with “Drink a little!” “Each to your own” or “Your choice” rather than another “Down the hatch!”
with thanks to William Irion and Wayne Chan
Also see: China's Drinking Culture