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The Culture of Drinking in China

22 July 2012

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.

Since the rules have been so ably covered by other people, I will confine myself to making a few observations that hopefully go beyond the superficialities of lowering one’s glass to the other person. My comments will mainly deal with drinking as a tool for gaining favours from the authorities.

1. First, heavy-duty drinking in China is almost purely a masculine pursuit. There are women who drink, of course, but heavy imbibing is largely a male activity. This is a battleground from which women are mostly excused, apart from being asked to make the occasional token toast with a glass of beer.

This should be a major tipoff: drinking 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 you drink at the risk of 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 male domination of drinking, and a general predominance of men in positions of power is that drinking easily becomes an activity between people who hold some kind of power. In China, obtaining the opportunity to hold a banquet for local political powerholders is a powerful tool to gaining their favours. The lavishness of the banquet and, perhaps more importantly, the ability to drink are a surefire way to create bonds with men who can grant or fulfil your requests. The supplicant must demonstrate his fitness to be granted favours in the eyes of such officials, a fitness that can best be 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. The drink of choice at such banquets 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  (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 mostly doesn’t leave you with a massive headache the next day, although it may destroy the lining of 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 suggested  baijiu instead. That is because beer and red wine just don’t cut it. Neither carries the sociological implications of the hard-drinking masculine bonding of baijiu. Red wine may be 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 way to go.

4. The toast: So far we’ve discussed 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 much 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 toasted, come from. Unfortunately I don’t remember any of these ingenious toasts (alcohol is not an aid to the memory) 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 sitting at the head of the table, i.e., furthest from the door: the businessman hosting the meal and the main government official. 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 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 fashion, the emphasis on drinking has led to the development of a class of people who are supremely adapted to it. Because this culture places a high value on the ability to drink, heavy drinkers naturally rise to positions of influence, thus reinforcing the need for those aspiring to power to embrace the culture. The result is 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 gain access to power.

Needless to say there are exceptions (and many women are in powerful positions without resorting to alcohol). However, a high regard for 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 boosting the fortunes of the alcoholic beverage industry and 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:


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