Spicks & Specks
site icon, link to home page

The culture of drinking in China – a Japanese view

28 July 2012

As a followup to my recent post on the culture of drinking in China, I would like to quote at length from the book この厄介な国、中国 Kono yakkai na kuni, Chūgoku ‘This troublesome country China’ by Hidehiro Okada (岡田英弘), published by Wac Bunko in 2001 riding the wave of Sinophobia in Japan. (Note that this is not an ideal translation of the title — the implication is that China is a difficult country to deal with or come to terms with from the Japanese point of view, because it is actually so different from Japan).

Okada is professor emeritus at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. While he is a historian of some repute in the fields of Mongolian, Manchu, Chinese, and Japanese history, in this book Okada lets his hair down and takes on the familiar persona of a hyōronka (評論家) or ‘commentator’, a term that generally applies to ojisan (men who are middle-aged or older) with all kinds of ‘authoritative views’ on society and current affairs. As a hyōronka, Okada is definitely several cuts above the pack. He’s dealing with a country he knows and has had years of experience with. What distinguishes this book from his scholarly work is the fact that it reveals his own personal reflections on the differences between Chinese and Japanese society. Leaving aside the sensational title, the book is an attempt to convey Okada’s belief that, despite misleading superficial similarities, there are some great differences between Chinese and Japanese values.

Okada presents a very interesting view of the Chinese culture of drinking. While we may feel tempted to laugh at his perception of Japan as a ‘kinder, gentler society’ (which it no doubt is for a man of his age and position), there is still much that rings true about his analysis of the drinking culture of China. His theory of ‘the principle of vulnerability’ in Chinese society, while perhaps a little harsh and simplistic, would not be rejected by many Chinese. Chinese people are only too aware that their country is in many ways a ‘dog-eat-dog’ society that requires a certain vigilance to be maintained about the motives of other people. His (here heavily abbreviated) comments on the extended family are a reflection of Chinese history, where the family was both a social security net and an important institution that was expected to police the behaviour of its members.

One particularly interesting point is Okada’s comments about the respect that the Chinese give to a man who can hold his drink, which echo perfectly a comment that I cited at the earlier thread (comment from Jenny Zhu’s post on the drinking culture of China):

The passage that follows has been edited for length, with phrases, sentences, and whole paragraphs omitted. There may be a few errors of copying. The translation is not totally faithful to the original, which is almost inevitable with Japanese since it is in so many ways different from English. But I believe that the gist of what Okada says is presented correctly.

(Background concept: ‘vulnerability’)

The ideal of living in a large extended family may at first blush sound like something beautiful or nostalgic. But totally unlike what this suggests for a Japanese, for a Chinese, if you follow the logic to its conclusion, this leads to the notion that people who are not in the same community cannot be trusted. [Okada's point is that only members of the extended family can be trusted under the Chinese worldview.]

…Needless to say, it is a world of ‘survival of the fittest’ that gives rise to this view that ‘the moment you step outside your own house the people around are all enemies who are out to take advantage of you’. The first rule in Chinese principles of behaviour is to exploit the weakness of others before they exploit yours.

…I call this “the principle of ‘vulnerability’”. The principle of ‘vulnerability’ is that you should not let other people see anything that they can exploit easily.

(The three taboos of a Chinese banquet)

Taboo number one is that on drinking at your own pace. Pouring and drinking by yourself is totally unacceptable. When you drink, you have to toast others…

The ideal is to toast everyone. This does not mean everyone drinking together. It means drinking with each person in turn, starting with the person on your right. Then the person on your right has to drink his way around the table, then the next person, …and so on.

…The second taboo is against getting drunk. At a Chinese banquet, people will find any and every excuse to make you drink. But no matter how much you drink, you are not allowed to show that you are drunk. You have to hold yourself together until the banquet ends.

…The principle of vulnerability makes its appearance again here. That is, even in a drinking situation, in Chinese society the person who wins respect is the one who absolutely will not relax his guard and holds out till the very end.

…It may be hard to believe from the Japanese point of view, but a person who gets drunk at a banquet is regarded as a person who cannot be trusted.

For the Japanese, it is the opposite. A person who doesn’t let go no matter how much he drinks is regarded as ‘creepy’ or ‘holding things in’ and will be regarded the worse for it. And a person who gets drunk and lets others see him make a disgrace of himself is somehow regarded as someone who can be trusted.

…The third taboo is engaging in serious talk at a banquet. Political and similar talk is out of the question… If political views suddenly enter the conversation, the person who is exposed to this is put on the spot. This is again the principle of vulnerability.

…Chinese are extremely fearful of saying things that will commit themselves. …If a person at a banquet gets drunk and comes out with political criticism, … the person who made the statements is naturally vulnerable, but according to Chinese thinking the person who listens passively is regarded as an accomplice because his failure to say anything is regarded as agreement.

But it would be the height of folly to argue against the speaker, because if you did, you would again be committing yourself.

That is why it is absolutely forbidden to speak of politics in a banquet held in confined quarters. …At any rate, the rule of banquets is to talk of trivial things.

Moreover, this silly talk has to be spoken in a loud voice. If you talk quietly with your neighbour, you will be suspected of plotting something and called discourteous. You’ll immediately hear voices calling for a penalty and be forced to drink a glass. Many Japanese people are taken aback by the noisiness of Chinese restaurants, but they are noisy because people are demonstrating to those around them that they are sincere and open.

(The sociology of banquets)

A Japanese would wonder what is so enjoyable about a banquet like this. But it’s not as though the Chinese themselves are having a good time. For them, a banquet isn’t entertainment, it’s a “battlefield” for showing what solid, respectable people they are. The condition for being respected in Chinese society is to absolutely not get drunk and to win the contest of endurance.

…For a Chinese, a banquet is another form of business. Day after day they go to parties, and win trust from other people by going home without showing that they are drunk. … A person who meets the same people at banquets time and time again, doesn’t get drunk, and always makes small talk will be regarded as “someone you could feel safe to work with.”…

To sum up again, for the Chinese, banquets have important functions. First, the function of determining who is trustworthy and who isn’t. Secondly, always being at parties has the function of demonstrating that you are trusted by others. Thirdly, in Chinese society, it has the function of allowing you to see who has lost power. That is, it performs a function of forging connections with people who have power.

In China, being in a position of power is synonymous with attending banquets every night. It’s quite normal for a powerful person to attend two or three banquets in an evening. Or to put it another way, a person who leaves during the course of one banquet to go to another one will win everyone’s respect. Since this is the case, frequent attendance at banquets means you are on the road to obtaining power yourself and it will also become clear to you who the person holding power is at the moment.

Japanese original



















…中国人にとっての宴会とは、もうひとつのビジネスなのである。来る日も来る日もパーティーに出つづけ、そこで酔いを見せることなく帰ることによって他人の信頼を勝ち得ていく。… 何度も同じ人に宴会で会い、その人物が酔わず、しかもいつもたわいのない話をしている姿を見て、「なるほど、こいつは一緒に仕事をしても安心だ」と判断するのである。…




Sorry, I'm now using Disqus for comments. If you'd prefer not to use Disqus, please send me an email and I'll list your comments separately. Thanks!