Food is a huge deal in Chinese culture, and the extremely high quality of Chinese cuisine represents that obsession with food. The Chinese eat very well, but when it comes to drinking, they are some of the greatest in the world. For a people who have a genetic predisposition to alcohol flush reaction, Chinese can drink with the best of them, and a great Chinese dinner is not complete unless it transforms into a fun, boisterous drinking party. And the more people involved, especially men, the higher the chances of that happening.
In Asian culture in general, becoming drunk and embarrassing yourself is highly frowned upon. Asian virtue includes modesty and self-control. So, like all things Asian, drinking is a contradiction. It is considered manly and praiseworthy to be able to drink heavily, but on the other hand, to become too drunk, to become sick, or to make a fool of oneself, is perceived very negatively. Thus the key is to be able to hold your liquor, so to speak.
The more formal the dinner, the more formal the drinking protocol. But in either case, there are still some rules to observe. First, you will always be given tea. The first round will be poured by the waiter. Tea may be sipped as you want it, and it may also be toasted. But toasting is more common with alcohol. If someone’s tea glass becomes empty, to refill it is to show honor and respect.
Ideally, you should never pour your own tea: everyone should pour it for everyone else. It is not necessarily wrong to pour your own. But if you do, always look around and refill others’ cups first. To refill the cup of the highest-ranking person at the table — especially the host — is not only a sign of respect, but also gives honor and status to the pourer. On the other hand, if the highest-ranking person pours your tea, it is an unspoken sign of disapproval, or of his desire for you to leave the dinner. Finally, in some parts of China (including here in Yunnan), when someone pours you tea, you gently tap the second knuckles of the first two fingers of your right hand, twice. It is meant to look like knees bowing, and it simply means thank you.
Chinese people have begun to drink much more wine (especially red) lately, but wine is still not a very common drink overall. At most dinners, the drink will be beer, baijiu, or both. Baijiu (Chinese 白酒, meaning white alcohol) is a distilled liquor made from sorghum. It can be considered the national drink of China, and it is quite harsh and strong to the uninitiated foreigner. In fact, to be honest, it will knock you on your feet if you are not careful. As opposed to Chinese beer, which usually has a low alcohol content, baijiu‘s ABV is 40%-60%. And something about the phytochemicals in the sorghum must make it especially potent, because it affects most people quite strongly. I am someone who certainly knows his way around a bar, so to speak, and I have to say that a night of baijiu dinner toasts will destroy me.
At our dinner, we drank only beer, much to my delight. But whether baijiu or beer (or any alcoholic beverage), the drinking etiquette is essentially the same. Basically, you do not drink except on toasts, and believe me, there will be quite enough toasts to get you smashed. It is considered greedy or alcoholic to drink between toasts. Usually, the host of the dinner, or the highest ranking person, will make the first toast. He or she will stand up, offer the toast, and everyone is expected to raise a glass, touch it to the others (much like a Western toast), and take a drink. When you raise your glass, you should try to keep it lower than the other glasses, as a show of humility.
While women are mostly exempt from the thinly-veiled drinking contest, men who beg off will be chided and goaded into drinking anyway. And if you are at a business dinner, your worth as a man, as a business partner, will hinge on how well you can drink. That is not an exaggeration — Westerners who wish to do business in China will have to be able to drink with the best of them. There is really only one way for a man to get out of banquet drinking, and that is to have a reasonable excuse, before the drinking starts: something like illness, allergy to alcohol, etc. Otherwise, if you refuse to drink with the other men, you will be considered less of a man. And if you are a woman who can keep up with the men, you will be very highly regarded!
Even though dinners with friends are much more relaxed and casual, still, there is an element of machismo among the males. While your good friends will not judge you harshly if you do not keep up with the drinking, they will still probably tease you good-naturedly. There will be a glass dedicated to alcohol at your place, different from the tea cup. Like tea, the glass will continue to be refilled all night long. And also like tea, it is considered a show of respect to refill the glasses of others, especially those higher than you in social rank or age.
Once the host or the alpha diner, so to speak, has made his or her toast, it is considered appropriate for you to eventually make a toast, especially if you are the guest of honor. Chinese people know and accept that foreigners do not always understand these rules, so they will not hold it against you if you do not toast. Chinese people are generous and truly want you to enjoy yourself. But if you as a foreigner make the second toast, you will be regarded highly. To make a toast, you basically stand up with your glass, say something about being honored to be there and thankful for the hospitality, say something about hoping for a happy and prosperous friendship and business relationship, then tilt your glass forward. Everyone else will then toast you.
There is one last thing that a foreigner needs to know about toasting at a Chinese dinner. On most toasts, it is acceptable to just take a sip of your alcohol, which I highly recommend if it is baijiu. You need to save your reserves, because you will need them. But if the toaster says ganbei, which means dry glass, then everyone is expected to down the entire contents of the glass. Luckily, the glasses are usually very short, but you should down it all, then tilt your glass forward to show that you finished it all. It is also good form to look the toaster in the eyes as you both drink the shot.
If this sounds brutal (and it is), keep in mind that many Chinese men will pull tricks like pouring the baijiu over their shoulder while pretending to drink, or secretly switching water for baijiu. So you will not be the only one suffering. Also, if you are with a group of Chinese men, say a business group, they will often toast you one-by-one, so that they only have to drink one glass, while you have to drink several. Watch for this!
You can get them back with a little trick I learned. If you see that the Chinese men are trying a stunt to get you smashed, then you can offer several toasts to the highest ranking men in their group. Once they begin to get really drunk, they will stop toasting, and they will understand that you are clever. In fact, the secret, unspoken games that Chinese business men play to try to get everyone else drunk can be really amusing. But the bottom line is this: if you are a man at a formal Chinese dinner — and especially a business dinner — you should expect to get very drunk, and to be judged on how well you can hold your liquor.
Next stop: the bar! It is fairly common to go to a bar after dinner. Usually everyone is encouraged to go, but if you want to bow out, it is alright. Just have some sort of excuse, like that you have to wake up very early, or that you feel sick. In China (and in much of the East), one’s face, or public reputation, is most important, so small lies are expected and condoned to save face. But if you want to continue to the bar, it is an experience you will never forget.
Chinese bars, like restaurants, are communal and thus different from Western bars. You will not find singles standing around, or anyone at all at the actual bar. Rather, people sit in groups at tables. When the group sits down, someone will come and give you a drink menu then take your order. Often, Chinese people will order dozens of bottles of beer at the start. The server will bring the beer and short glasses. As you might imagine, drinking is not a process of casually sipping as you wish. Rather, there will quite often be drinking games, and many bars leave dice and cards on the tables for this purpose.
As with dinner, there is no need to worry about not being able to drink enough at a Chinese bar. The drinking games will ensure that you drink plenty. Karaoke is also very popular with the Chinese (although an evening at a KTV establishment is an entirely different experience), so be ready to sing if the bar has karaoke. Do not be shy, because Chinese people are certainly not shy about singing! The more outgoing you are, the more talkative you are, and the more you laugh and cause others to laugh, the better you will be liked, so be yourself and have fun. The bar will be more relaxed than the restaurant in terms of social customs and unwritten rules, and by this time, everyone will be drunk anyway, so they will not really care anymore about all of that.
As you can see then, drinking is an important part of Chinese culture. But it is not the freestyle drinking of the West. Rather, Chinese drinking culture is much more ritualized, controlled, and purposeful. As a man, you will be expected to drink alot, though you will also be expected to control yourself, even when drunk. China is still very much a Confucian society, and Confucius taught that a gentleman must always control himself, and never show his strong emotions in public. So if you drink too much and become loud, obnoxious, or embarrassing, you will be judged very harshly by your Chinese friends and colleagues. But if you can keep up with their drinking and generally be happy, witty, and open, you will gain lots of respect. And if you ever out-drink a Chinese man, meaning that he has to finally stop and give in, you will be honored and revered.
Why is drinking in China so important and ritualized, especially for men? I have a theory. If you are trying to do business with Chinese businesspeople, it is not at all like doing business in the West. Chinese businesspeople want to really get to know you before they interact in business with you. They want to know what sort of a person you are. They want to get to know your habits, your family, your philosophy on life and on business. They want to become your friend before they become your business partner. And there is no quicker way to really know and judge a man, than to see him drinking. Can he control himself? Will he go along with the wishes of the group? Is he strong and capable? So whether simply among friends, or at a formal business dinner, prepare to drink in China. Once you become accustomed to the unwritten rules and the customs, you will find it quite enjoyable, and you will quickly form bonds that can last a lifetime.