Chinese Drinking Rules

Another week, another wedding-related hiatus here on Little Yak. (Mr Yak and I celebrated our wedding for the second and final time with a Chinese banquet on Cheung Chau last Saturday.) Apologies once more, kind readers…

Fake Alcohol in Yunnan

Johnny Worker: Fuelled by Red Squarf © Jo James

For those who may be unfamiliar with Chinese wedding traditions, drinking is an important part of the general proceedings at the banquet. In particular, towards the end of the meal the bridal party gets up and crams around each table in turn to drink a toast with their guests. This is a Good thing, in that the couple manages to see everyone at least once during the banquet, but a Bad thing because by the time the bride and groom reach the last few tables, they may not actually be able to see, period. For this reason, wine or brandy is often watered down to avoid anyone embarrassing themselves by the time they reach table 56. Our first glasses of wine were watered down with Sprite (see #4 below), but were refilled with the regular-strength stuff. Happily nobody did anything terrible (perhaps because we had 29 tables, rather than fifty-plus), but tempers and heads in the Little Yak household the following day left something to be desired.

I’ve done my share of drinking in China, the legacy of time spent working with local governments, so I thought I’d share my hard-won knowledge with you here, in the hope that it might help you ease your way through official dinners and avoid some hangovers:

#1: Drinking ability is the measure of the man
Given how scripted many Chinese official meetings are, it can be difficult to get to know anyone properly and almost impossible to find out what anyone really thinks about anything. How to find out if your potential business partner is trustworthy or not? Get drunk together, of course! The thinking is that by getting someone drunk, you will make them lower their guard and show you what they’re actually like. However – beware! – this is not a relationship of equals, as a guest is usually forced to drink more than the hosts, and wily seasoned drinkers will have an array of tricks to help them avoid more alcohol than necessary. I’ve seen men furtively pouring water into their wine glasses (useful if you’re drinking baijiu, clear grain liquor), pouring their drinks into plantpots and making underlings drink on their behalf, all in order to avoid drinking more than they want to.

#2: In your cups
At formal dinners, alcohol is only drunk for toasts – if you need to sip anything, sip some tea. If someone sees you preparing to drink from your wineglass, they may propose a toast either to you, or to the table as a whole, and your sneaky sip will turn into a public affair – I speak from experience here.

If your glass is empty and you need a drink, fill up everyone else’s glasses first. If you’re feeling especially polite, then you should then wait for someone else to fill up your own glass, but in some company you might be waiting for a while – it’s usually okay to top-up your glass after you’ve tended to everyone else first.

When clinking glasses during a toast your glass position is important. Drinking with someone more senior than you? Make sure the lip of your glass is lower than theirs – if you end up scraping your cup along the table, that’s totally acceptable. Drinking with someone junior? Your glass can be higher up, but it’s always good to make a bit of an attempt at modesty and try to go lower.

#3: Bottoms up!
Once you’re mastered #2, it’s time to drink – hurrah! But don’t drink too much or too little – the idea is to match the amount drunk by the person who proposed the toast. Usually this is agreed in advance, the worst (or best) case scenario being “Bottoms up!” (干杯!Gānbēi), in which case you should down whatever is in your glass and show the empty glass to your drinking buddies, with your spare hand gesturing towards the glass for bonus points.

#4: Spirits and Sprite
The usual banquet drinks of choice are baijiu (brewed with rice, wheat or sorghum) and, increasingly, red wine. Red wine is a new introduction to the official dining table – and for some reason it’s often watered down with Sprite. Once you’ve tasted baijiu, perhaps you’ll be as confused as I am as to why baijiu doesn’t receive the same treatment…

A few years ago a case came to light where someone was faking Maotai, one of China’s most lauded baijiu brands, by watering down DDT and pouring it into Maotai bottles. The issue was that it was very difficult to tell the difference between the counterfeit version and the real deal, which will give you an idea of the typical baijiu flavour profile. It’s always best to drink the local brand of baijiu, because it’s the least likely to have been tampered with.*

At one meal in Shandong, I was served beer, red wine, baijiu, yaojiu (baijiu that has been infused with medicinal herbs), and brandy. Be prepared for anything.

#5: Drinking Demographics
As regional stereotypes would have it, China’s biggest drinkers are from Shandong and Inner Mongolia. While, in general, the north is more boozy than the south, men all over China enjoy a drink and as is the case elsewhere, often pride themselves on how much they can drink – more than the neighbouring province/town/village/table, at least.

Many Chinese women avoid all this grandstanding by simply avoiding alcohol, although I’ve met women from Shandong and Inner Mongolia who could drink most men under the table. And all this, despite the fact that almost 50% of Chinese people suffer from ‘Asian flush syndrome’, whereby their faces turn bright red after drinking…

* * *

All of the above applies to official occasions, but you’ll also find many informal occasions adopt the same ideas (toasts are top, dip the lip of your glass when drinking, and drink as much as everyone else at the table) – an American friend and I were drinking in Beijing a few years ago and we found that we’d unconsciously adopted Chinese drinking rules, which felt a little extreme, but shows how easily one can adopt foreign politenesses.

While I found myself dreading banquets (at least banquets in Shandong and Inner Mongolia) because of the drinking, I can’t deny that all the ridiculous toasts do help everyone to get to know each other more quickly and help you to form better relationships with your hosts or guests. At one dinner, I was repeatedly told that I was ‘Second only to Chinese girls!’ – which, considering that there’s 700 million of them, one might consider damning with faint praise, but I appreciated the sentiment, all the more so after my tenth little glass of baijiu.

* On a more serious note, counterfeit alcohol is a serious problem in China, where it’s relatively common to find isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) in certain spirits in place of ethanol. Avoid any suspiciously cheap drinks (¥10 drink specials, I’m looking at you) involving foreign brands of alcohol, as these are the most likely to have been faked. Most expats in China will have had an isopropyl hangover or two – identifiable by their length (48 hours or more) and severity – definitely best avoided.

One response to “Chinese Drinking Rules

  1. Pingback: Five things I’ve learned about travel photography | Little Yak·

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