How to Handle Drinking in China Posted by sasha on Jul 17, 2019 in Culture
One of the first words I (and many other foreigners, for that matter) learned in China was “Cheers!” (干杯 – gān bēi). It’s no secret that drinking is a big part of the culture here. Whether you’re a 中国人 or a 老外, glasses are raised and clinked all the time in the Middle Kingdom. Things can be a bit intense, though, so I’m here to help you in this guide on how to handle drinking in China.
The first thing we should address is that the Chinese word for cheers literally means “dry glass.” As such, when someone says “干杯!” to you, they’re basically telling you “bottoms up!” If you’re drinking watered-down Chinese beer (啤酒 – pí jiǔ), this isn’t such a problem. But when you switch to the hard stuff, watch out! More on that later, though…
The good news is people in China typically drink out of a small glass (杯子 – bēi zi). These are about 5-6 ounces and are pretty easy to throw back. You see, the problem is that even though “cheers” means “dry glass,” your glass always seems to be full here! What exactly is in that glass, though?
What Do People Drink in China?
People have been drinking beer for a long time in China. In fact, archaeologists recently unearthed beer-making materials in the Central Plain area of China that are estimated to be 5,000 years old!
Chinese beers usually fall into the pale lager category, and they’re typically only 3-3.5% alcohol. Some of the most popular domestic brands include Snow (雪花 – xuě huā), Tsingtao (青岛 – qīng dǎo), and Yanjing (燕京 – yàn jīng). Be sure to read my post on how to order a beer in Chinese before you go to China.
While beer is very popular in China and wine (葡萄酒 – pú táo jiǔ) is catching on, it’s all about bai jiu (白酒 – bái jiǔ) here. “What is bai jiu?” you may be asking yourself…
Bai jiu is a clear liquor that’s made by distilling sorghum, and it’s usually 45-50% alcohol. The end product looks like vodka, but the similarities end there. I like to call bai jiu rocket fuel, because you feel like you could take off for the moon after a big sip.
At first it doesn’t taste so bad, but then the aftertaste leaves you scrambling to find
something anything to help get rid of it. One small sip of the stuff will leave me wincing and squirming, desperately grabbing for a bottle of Coke or some food to destroy the foul taste.
Meanwhile, the old Chinese man next to me casually takes a huge gulp, lights up a smoke, and goes about his business as if nothing happened. The idea of chasing booze or using it in a mixed drink is still a very new idea over here; most people just drink the stuff at room temperature, straight, no chaser.
Go to a Chinese banquet or wedding, and you will see people getting irresponsibly trashed as they tip glass after glass of bai jiu. If you plan on doing any kind of business in China, you’d better get used to drinking this stuff, as marathon bai jiu drinking is synonymous with meetings and business deals here.
That brings us to our next point.
Drinking Culture in China
Drinking has been a big part of Chinese culture for thousands of years. Whether it’s at a business lunch, a wedding, a Spring Festival gathering, or just sitting on plastic stools on a random street corner, there’s a lot of drinking going on here.
My first foray into Chinese drinking culture came at my agent’s wedding in the suburbs of Beijing. We barely knew her, as we had only been working for her for about a month, but she invited about seven of us foreign English teachers to the wedding (婚礼 – hūn lǐ).
The hostess showed us to our table, where we found a pack of cigarettes (香烟 – xiāng yān) and a bottle of bai jiu at each spot. Within minutes, people we had never met before were coming up to insist we all pour a glass of bai jiu and join them in a toast. The wedding hadn’t even started yet and the booze was flowing!
Things were far worse for the groom, though. Throughout the ceremony, I swear he had a drink of bai jiu with every person in the room. Needless to say, he was barely standing by the end of his own wedding!
It’s not just weddings, though. Drinking is also a huge part of doing business in China. You see, the idea here is that if you can drink with someone, then you can do business together. As such, bai jiu is a common fixture at business lunches and meetings all over the country.
This is just the way it’s done in China. When drinking – especially for a special occasion or in a business setting – it is considered rude to refuse an offer of a drink and a toast. The traditional way to conduct a toast is to raise your glass, but make sure it is lower than the glass of the most elderly or respected person in the group. After you dry your glass, someone else fills it up and the madness continues.
How to Handle Drinking in China
At this point, I’m sure that drinking in China seems very intimidating. While it’s true that it can get a bit intense when the bai jiu starts flowing, I’m here to assuage your concerns a bit and give you some tips.
First of all, women don’t really need to be concerned. While it’s true that more and more women are socially drinking in China, it’s really only the men who engage in the chest-pumping, binge-drinking shenanigans. My wife never had a hard time turning down a glass of bai jiu in China, whereas I on the other hand…
As I said before, it’s considered rude to refuse a drink (or a cigarette, for that matter). The best way to handle this is to simply accept the offer and fake it. I can’t tell you how many glasses of bai jiu I ended up dumping out and how many cigarettes I just let burn over the years. It’s better to accept and pretend than it is to refuse altogether.
Another important survival strategy for drinking in China is to ensure you stay hydrated and never drink on an empty stomach. The second part isn’t too hard, as there always seems to be a table full of food when you go out drinking in China. Of course, this could backfire later. Eating a bunch of ma la tang (麻辣烫 – má là tàng) and drinking a ton of bai jiu might result in disaster. Stick to foods you can handle and try not to overdue it with anything.
When drinking in China, one always has to be aware about the importance of face. There are few things worse in Chinese culture than losing face (丢脸 – diū liǎn). You don’t want to be the reason someone loses face, so keep these things in mind:
- It’s best accept a drink, even if you don’t end up drinking it
- Be sure to make/join in a toast
- Keep your glass lower than others, just to play it safe
- Offer to fill up the glasses of your drinking buddies
- Don’t try to be a show-off
Drinking in China often quickly escalates into a contest, which can end poorly. If there’s an argument, especially with strangers in a bar, it’s best to just walk away. I can’t tell you how many horror stories I heard of foreigners ending up in the hospital or jail as a result of a skirmish when out drinking. Keep your wits and your cool and just head for the door if things get out of hand.
Hopefully this post has been interesting for you whether you ever end up drinking in China or not. While I realize that drinking in China probably seems quite intimidating after reading this, I can assure you that it’s usually a good time! I had a ton of fun going to events like the Qingdao Beer Festival when I lived in China. As long as you know what to expect and how to handle it, you’ll have a great time, too.