Understanding China’s Drinking Culture

4 min read.

Whether you are a seasoned businessman who frequents visits to China, or you have only been there on a few business trips, you would have realized that the country’s drinking culture is a core component of Chinese social life. However, you would also have noticed that China’s drinking culture differs significantly from that in Western countries. Being more controlled, purposeful and way more complicated, it is crucial to familiarize yourself with the intricacies of Chinese drinking etiquette first before jumping straight into it.

China’s national drink: Baijiu
Credit: Zhihu

Chinese Drinking Culture Versus Western’s

In Western cultures, a huge emphasis is placed on the beverage itself, where a luxurious night out would be incomplete without an extensive list of fine wine and liquor. On the contrary, the taste of the liquor is nowhere near as important as the people you are drinking with in Chinese culture. Going on a night out together is indicative of the strong camaraderie between different parties, as well as the desire to strengthen the existing relationship. In fact, many successful business deals are established over a beer or two at social gatherings, rather than formal business meetings that take place during the day.

Types of Alcohol

White Wine 白酒 (bái jiǔ) –  Also known as sorghum wine, this popular drink of choice may appear unassuming, but it certainly packs a punch. Baijiu typically contains 40-60 percent alcohol-by-volume, similar to that of tequila or whiskey, but with an added burning stench akin to that of rubbing alcohol. The most popular brand of Baijiu is Maotai, which can be as strong as 60 percent alcohol-by-volume.

Red Wine 红酒 (hóng jiǔ) – Though nowhere as popular as Baijiu, red wine has become increasingly common at Chinese dinner tables in recent years. Popular choices include French wines such as Lafit or Latour.

Beer 啤酒 (pí jiǔ) – With a wide array of options to choose from, beer has also become a common choice of drink to be paired with Baijiu. The most popular brands include Tsingtao Beer and Harbin Beer, both of which are crisp, refreshing lagers that can cool the burning sensations after drinking Baijiu.

Typically, more than one type of alcohol will be served at a meal, depending on the context. For instance, when receiving foreign delegation, red wine will usually be served for lunch, whereas dinner will comprise a combination of Baijiu and red wine.

General Drinking Etiquette

Hierarchy is extremely important at Chinese business dinners, where the host or most senior person at the table is usually expected to make the first toast. If anyone makes a toast to you, please do not refuse to drink; take at least a sip of your drink out of respect, though emptying your glass is considered the greatest indicator of respect. Additionally, when you clink glasses with someone, ensure that your glass is held lower than the other party’s if they are more senior than you. Note that subordinates who go out on meals with their bosses should check in with them on their drinking ability prior to the meal, as it is common for non-Chinese bosses to dislike Baijiu. Should this scenario arise, strategize with your boss beforehand and be prepared to drink on behalf of them.

If you would like to make a toast to someone at the table yourself, you may do so by saying “我敬您一杯” (wǒ jìng nǐ yī bēi) which translates to “I’m making a toast to you”, though note that by making a toast to someone, you are expecting them to drink. Therefore,  to relieve the pressure of making someone else drink, you can also say “我干了,你随意” (wǒ gān le, nǐ suí yì), which means “I will finish my drink, but you may drink at your leisure.”

As the evening progresses and toasting gets more casual, you can switch to the popular “干杯” (gān bēi) when making a toast, which is the Chinese equivalent of “cheers” or “bottoms up”, depending on the context. The latter would imply that you are expected to finish your drink in one go after the toast, and again, doing so would signify your utmost respect for the individual you are toasting. Generally, all males at the table are usually required to drink unless he is of high stature. Females, on the other hand, are not expected to drink as much. In fact, bottoms ups are rarely required of females.

Toasts aside, punctuality is extremely important in Chinese culture. If you happen to be late to a meal, expect to be “punished” by having to drink more than others. Yet, despite it sounding intimidating, most latecomers actually do not mind the “punishment”, as it allows them to catch up with the rest of the people at the table.

If you are generally not a good drinker, take it slow with the alcohol, as the drinking ritual is more resemblant of a marathon than a sprint and getting overly drunk is undesirable. If you still struggle to keep up, try to opt for beer instead of Baijiu, or even tea as a last resort. However, note that toasting or clinking glasses with water is considered bad luck, and is hence frowned upon. If you have a low alcohol tolerance but still wish to keep up with the drinking, you may consider taking some medication before the meal which can help increase your drinking stamina. Alternatively, if you are really unable to drink, you should bring it up before the dinner starts and still keep up with toasts and other festivities at the table with tea. 

Credit: Juimg

With all that said, do not worry if you are unable to adapt to Chinese drinking culture immediately, as it usually takes a while to get accustomed to the complex rules and copious amounts of alcohol. With practice, the process could even become natural and enjoyable! After all, if you have been invited to drink with someone, it is an indication of their respect for your friendship. Enjoy the night and make the most out of the opportunity to strengthen ties with them!