Chinese Drinking Culture

Article by Lyla

Perhaps you are working for a Chinese school or company, you may attend a few business dinners at some point, or maybe you are meeting your significant other’s family during the spring festival in China, Either way, there is lots of drinking involved during these Chinese social events, and the proper etiquette can be elusive. Here are some tips.

Survival Tips:

1 If you are truly unable to drink, you should bring up the fact at the beginning of the dinner, and request a pot of tea for yourself.

2 Let older people eat first, or if you hear an elder say “let’s eat”, you can start to eat.

3 Take it slow – Chinese dinners and drinking social events tend to go on for hours. In order to make it through a long night of drinking, make sure to eat and hydrate between drinks. Tea or hot water is best.

4 When clinking glasses, the younger person should always hold their glass lower than the senior folks. This not only applies to business situations, but also to family dinners.

5 干杯(gan bei) is simply Mandarin for ‘Bottoms up!’. It’s not really ‘Cheers!’, although nowadays the younger generation uses it as cheers as well. So make sure which ‘gan bei’ is being used before you down your drink. You can also ask ‘干了?’ ‘gan le?’ to see if you are to finish your glass or say ‘随意’ to indicate that each person can drink as they like.

6 Toasting is a technical task. Be sure to make a toast and show your appreciation, especially when drinking with Chinese leaders. This is a sentence “我敬你一杯” (wo jing ni yi bei) is something you could say when you toast to a specific person. Just remember not to overdo it, which is easy to do with baijiu, or you will suffer the consequences.

China’s Changing Drinking Habits

Back then, 60 or 70 years ago, China was short of food and wine. Wine (baijiu) was precious. Toasts were primarily used to entertain guests. In fact, many of the traditions of toasting three or five glasses of wine comes from there. But later, the state officially approved the method of blending spirits with edible alcohol, commonly known as liquid-phase method, and China’ s wine production reached an explosive growth, with more baijiu entering millions of households. Despite the presence of more wine, the custom of toasting has been passed down. However, the practice of toasting has undergone a curious transformation in the modern era, resulting in a culture of persuasion, toasts, and alcohol, resulting in excessive drinking. Some people have actually died during drinking parties as a result of this drinking culture. Even as more and more people come to understand China’ s knowledge and culture of brewing, aging, and tasting of wine that has developed over thousands of years, the contemporary habit of bullying the table in the name of wine has become problematic.

Today, with economic development, the drinking culture and lifestyle common in the West has gradually been brought to China. Young Chinese are now more likely to connect drinking with personal and celebratory occasions and use alcohol to relax, have fun or to indulge themselves. The tastes of the younger generation have also changed, with more people shifting to wine, cocktails, and beer when going out. Even some of the older generation have moved on from drinking baijiu to imported and domestic red wines. However, the habit of downing one’s glass in a celebratory ‘gan bei’ persists even now.

Lyla is an English teacher from China who runs an English training center for children in Xi’an.