About a year ago I met a young Chinese woman who was planning to give a speech to the Toastmasters Club about ‘the Chinese culture of drinking’. She told me she was going to talk about the Chinese custom of ensuring that one’s glass is always at a lower level than the other guy’s when clinking glasses. I never heard how her speech went, but I doubt that many foreigners in the audience would have learnt anything they didn’t already know. The grosser points of etiquette in the Chinese ‘culture’ of drinking are quickly acquired. What is less easily grasped is the point of it all.
For those interested in the etiquette of drinking and how to deal with it at a Chinese banquet, this is covered in some detail on the Internet. The following are some useful sites.
- How to survive a Chinese drinking frenzy By Trista Baldwin
- Chinese drinking rules
- Mixing business and drinking in China
- Chinese business etiquette guide Part 4 Toast Etiquette
- Chinese business etiquette guide Part 7: Drinking Culture and Manner in China
- The ganbei – a Chinese drinking culture
- Drinking at a Chinese banquet by James Steed
- Toasting at a Chinese table – 18 Dos and Don’ts – a very detailed guide to what to do!
Since the rules have been so ably covered by other people, I will confine myself here to making a few observations that hopefully go beyond the superficialities of lowering one’s glass to the other person. My comments will mainly be concerned with the use of drinking as a business tool for gaining favours from the authorities.
1. The first point about drinking in China is that it is almost purely a masculine pursuit. There are women who drink, of course, but heavy imbibing is almost completely a male activity. This is a male battleground and women are almost totally excused from it, apart from the occasional token toast with a glass of beer.
The fact that it is a male pursuit is a major tipoff. This is an activity where one’s masculinity is on the line. The only real excuse for not drinking is a constitutional inability to drink, either a major medical condition, or a plea that heavy drinking in the past has so ravaged your system that you have been warned that to continue will have major negative consequences (although the second one may not always work – it will be assumed that you really want to drink and only need a bit of encouragement to get back to your old pastime).
2. Access to power: An important implication of the exclusively male nature of drinking is that this is an activity between people who hold some kind of power. In fact, getting the opportunity to hold a banquet for local political powerholders means you are already halfway there. The lavishness of the banquet and, perhaps more importantly, the ability to drink is a surefire way to create bonds with men (government or party officials) who have the power to grant or fulfil requests. The person who is supplicating the powers-that-be for favours or contracts must demonstrate his fitness to deal with them, a fitness demonstrated by his prodigious powers of toasting and drinking. I have heard of Chinese businessmen boasting that they merely need to have a hard drinking session with government officials in order to get a coveted contract or permit.
3. The drink of choice: baijiu. Since this is a hard drinking session between men, the drink of choice is a man’s drink – high-proof baijiu (白酒 báijiǔ). Baijiu not only has a high alcohol content, it has a powerful taste to boot. Chinese describe it as là (辣), a word also used for hot and spicy foods. Not for nothing do Westerners sometimes refer to it as ‘rocket fuel’. Its main advantage is that it doesn’t usually leave you with a massive headache the next day, although it will more than likely destroy the lining in your stomach.
Not all Chinese actually want to drink baijiu. When asked what they would like to drink, I’ve seen Chinese officials express a preference for beer or red wine. This was irrelevant to the host. Whether he personally wanted to drink it or not, the host would usually suggest drinking baijiu instead. That is because beer and red wine just don’t cut it. Neither carries the sociological implications of hard-drinking masculine bonding of baijiu. Red wine may be popular as a prestigious or civilised drink, but it is nothing compared to the earthy, primitive emotional power of baijiu. If you want results from your hard-won access to authority, baijiu is the only way to go.
4. The toast: So far we’ve looked at the primal cultural value of drinking baijiu as a means of masculine power bonding. None of this really qualifies for the oft-made Chinese claim that there is a ‘culture of drinking’. But there is one aspect of drinking in China that is truly cultural: the ability to give a well-worded toast. This is a veritable art form. It means far more than wishing for the long-life or wellbeing of the toastee. It involves finding the right combination of words that will elevate the position of the other person while subtly maintaining or elevating your own at the same time. It means finding something in common with a person you have nothing in common with and making it sound like the most natural compliment in the world. In watching people exchange toasts I could only wonder at their ingenuity. It is almost magical where these polished words, perfectly attuned to the person being toasted, come from. Unfortunately I don’t remember any of these ingenious toasts and have little occasion to participate in such power sessions any more. But those at the front line know exactly what I mean. A well-turned toast will bring great respect and renown to the toaster. This is indeed a culture worthy of study, although I am not aware of any studies of this fascinating example of language in action having been made to date. (The best web site I’ve found with specific advice on giving toasts in Chinese is this one: Chinese customs – Use these 17 Chinese toasts to win the hearts of your Chinese friends and family, which gives a good selection of ready-made toasts.)
5. Domination of the conversation: Another important aspect of the drinking session is the existence of a pecking order. Unlike a Western-style situation where anyone can join in the conversation, in a Chinese banquet there are usually two main participants (the businessman hosting the meal and the main government official) sitting at the head of the table, i.e., furthest from the door. They are flanked by their various lieutenants and lower staff members, going right round to the other side of the table where the humble drivers sit. (Needless to say, the drivers take no part in the drinking). There is toasting and conversation by all participants around the table, but a lot of the talking is done by the two main participants at the head of the table and, to a lesser extent by their main lieutenants.
The above form the basic ingredients of the culture of drinking in China as I see it.
In the field of government banquets, the culture of drinking has a rather interesting consequence: it leads to a virtual dictatorship of alcoholics. In true survival-of-the-fittest style, the emphasis on drinking has led to the development of a class of people who are highly adapted to it. Because culture places a high value on the ability to drink, heavy drinkers naturally tend to rise to positions of influence, thus reinforcing the requirement that those aspiring to power must embrace the culture. The result is all too often a class of hard-drinking Good Old Boys — party secretaries and others — who control the strings and the dispensation of favours. Since elite party and government officials tend to be rotated around the country, the influence and networks of these people are felt nationwide. Alcoholism or semi-alcoholism is a product of this culture and its values, and even those who have no wish to drink heavily are coerced into participating in an attempt to get on in the power structure.
Needless to say there are exceptions (and many women are in powerful positions without resorting to alcohol). However, it cannot be denied that the high valuation given to the ability to participate in the ‘drinking culture’ is a strong feature of power relations throughout Chinese society. From the grass roots up, Chinese culture is a powerful machine not only for boosting the fortunes of the alcoholic beverage industry, but also for perpetuating the drinking culture itself.
Post scriptum: I’ve since found a number of articles on China’s drinking culture, as opposed to the drinking etiquette, to be found on the Internet. Most of those written by Westerners are critical:
- Drinking culture in China by Jenny Zhu (For a typical Chinese attitude to the drinking culture, see the final comment by John Lou: “It seems silly that anyone would insinuate that Chinese drinking culture is considered destructive, when Chinese drinking culture is based upon trust. If one can handle their liquor and also be trusted upon to speak intelligently and act appropriate it shows the strength of his character, and that outside substance can not influence who is he as a person. Thereby business dealings or even relationships are strengthened as a way of eliminating the “trust” and “understanding” roadblocks.”)
- The rise of binge drinking in China by Tania Branigan (from the Guardian)
- Chinese Culture Encourages Binge Drinking in Middle-Aged Men, Study Says
- The culture of drinking in China by Rosie Honey Wong (a brief article expressing similar attitudes, but much less critical).
- Alcohol use in China — a detailed paper on the increasing use of alcohol in China, but does not deal to any great extent with the ‘culture of drinking’.