Daily Anecdotes: Chinese Drinking Tricks and Traps

As a native of Harbin, I feel obliged to write about beer (and about Chinese drinking customs in general). If this statement has you scratching your head wondering, “I thought Harbin was only famous for its ice sculptures?” then it’s time you beefed up on your alcohol knowledge.

In addition to the Ice Festival, my home city is known for its -30ºC winters, Siberian tigers, home-made sauerkraut, and beer. Harbin was purportedly the first place in China to brew beer some 107 years ago. Old statistical lore has it that Harbin at some point ranked #2 (just behind Munich) in per capita beer consumption. It’s no wonder that global alcohol magnate Anheuser-Busch bought Harbin Lager in 2004 in its ploy to tackle the Chinese beer market (which is #1 globally in total volume, 11th in liters per capita).

Need I say more? Beer and “baijiu” (120 proof Chinese rice wine) flow like water in Harbin, where alcohol consumption is twice the national average. Visitors to northern China should expect to meet an alcohol-loving people whose drinking habits are utterly unlike that of the Brits, the Aussies, or the Russians. Learning the etiquette, tricks, and traps will steer your local induction away from becoming a drunken mess.

A Filipino colleague once told me about his disastrous business trip to northern China. He was unprepared on this first trip and made the novice mistake of going alone to meet four Chinese counterparts. The Chinese hosts happily exploited Rule #1 in the drinking etiquette book: a guest can’t politely refuse the first “gan bei” (“bottoms up”) offered by each host.

Having learned a hard lesson, the next time he went to China my colleague armed himself with reinforcements to share the pain. He felt smug when facing the team of Chinese counterparts with his own team of drinkers, until the Chinese initiated the drinking with a different custom –

“How many children do you have, Mr. Villanueva?” his host inquired.

“Five,” replied my dutifully Catholic colleague.

“Wonderful! I would like to toast to the health of each of your children!”

That was the beginning of the end.

This story teaches a valuable lesson. Drinking in China isn’t about drinking at your own pace, when and how much you like. The Chinese derive as much joy from cajoling others to drink as from the taste of alcohol and its mirthful after effects.

In northern China, any meal after break fast is a good occasion to imbibe in quantity. The usual custom is that a host “opens” the meal by filling everyone’s glass, making an introductory toast, and leading everyone in a “gan bei.” Unless you’ve had a liver transplant, it’s hard to avoid this first bottoms up without offending someone.

After the opening drink, how drunk you get depends on who you’re with. A mild group would be easiest to handle for they would mostly engage in “jing jiu” (“respectful toasts”). Since it’s hardly polite to pour your own drink or drink by yourself, if you feel like taking a sip you have to come up with an excuse for a toast. Then, fill up the glasses of people you’re toasting and down your glasses in unison. More likely, you won’t have to think up any toasts for your Chinese friends will constantly be out-toasting each other. Even “jing jiu” drinking can get you rapidly inebriated.

A party of mostly young males are more likely to skip the mild “jing jiu” in favor of “quan jiu” (“persuasive drinking”). This form of coercive drinking involves finding all manner of excuses to get each other drinking more than you’d like. In “quan jiu”, you’re more likely to hear the insistent “gan bei” instead of the easygoing “sui yi” (“drink as much as you’d like”). Guilt is a critical element at a “quan jiu” session. You’ll often hear, “If you don’t gan bei with me…

“…you’re not showing me friendship (“bu gou yi si”).”

“…you’re not being sincere with me (“bu shi zai”).”

“…you’re not giving me face (“bu gei mian zi”).”

People engaging in persuasive drinking might also cite obscure customs (sometimes made up on the fly) to dictate who drinks and how much. For example, when fish is ordered and served, the two people sitting where the head and tail of the fish are pointing have to do three bottoms up.

The worst kind of drinking (for your liver anyway) in China is “fa jiu” (“punishing drinks”). “Punishments” – usually three glasses taken as shots in quick succession – are doled out for small offenses. Last person to arrive? That’ll cost you three glasses of baijiu. Youngest person at the table? Cause for a triple shot. The only single person at a gathering of married people? Prepare to get hammered.

There is one way out of punishing drinks, if you bring your own willing “substitute.” It’s socially acceptable for someone who doesn’t drink much to deflect their punishments to someone else willing to take the punishment for them. Common substitutes are husbands for wives, boyfriends for girlfriends, or best men/maid of honor for grooms/brides.

If through all this drinking you’re still sober-witted enough to worry about manners, remember that Confucian ideals also apply when it comes to alcohol. A polite drinker always serve elders or superiors at the table first, with both hands, and touch his glass to the lower half of the elder/superior’s glass to show respect.

Now you’re armed and ready to go. Happy drinking!

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