An Essential Guide to Drinking in China
If there is one thing that the Chinese enjoy drinking more than tea; it’s alcohol.
Whether you’re at Chinese dinner or belting out the high notes at karaoke, chances are you’ll be soon be clinking a small glass on the table, throwing back shots and shouting, “干杯 (gān bēi) !”
Drinking is also a crucial part of forging business relationships, or 关系 (guān xi) , in China, with many successful deals struck over a banquet dinner.
Here are some essentials about China’s drinking culture to help keep you from being the unprepared foreigner at (or under) the table.
East vs. West
Imagine getting drunk in front of your boss while out at an expensive business dinner.
In the west, you’d quickly become the office leper - branded unprofessional.
But in China, you’re a hero.
If you can believe it, drinking is actually an admirable quality in China. Whether out at a business dinner, karaoke or even at a family celebration, the more you can chug, the stronger your character.
Boozing in China isn’t just for the ‘Under 25s’, and you can even find yourself gān bēi’ing with grandma - shotting expensive red wine, warm beer and some seriously strong spirits.
But the major difference, is that typically, for the Chinese, drinking isn’t about savouring the flavour, but savouring the moment.
Types of Alcohol
The type of alcohol or how much it costs isn’t that important when out drinking with Chinese friends or colleagues.
Having said that, you’ll likely be knocking back three main types of booze; beer, wine and baijiu.
There are a bevy of beers to be found across China, but by far the most internationally known Chinese beer is Tsingtao 青岛啤酒 (qīng dǎo pí jiǔ) . A smooth, light-malted larger with a distinct ‘ricey’ aftertaste.
Other popular beers also include; Snow 雪花啤酒 (xuě huā pí jiǔ) : most widely-purchased beer in China, has a clean taste and goes with just about anything), Sinkiang Black Beer 新疆黑啤 (xīn jiāng hēi pí) : a rich stout, perfect with meaty dishes) and Harbin 哈尔滨啤酒 (hā ěr bīn pí jiǔ) : very mild and watery.
Often in China, you’ll also find beers spelled backwards or in a jumbled way from where they are brewed.
Like the popular “Haizhu” beer found in my city of “Zhuhai”.
Find out the Chinese measure word for 啤酒 (pí jiǔ) here
Throughout Chinese history, all kinds of wines have been used in rituals to please and appease the gods and ancestors.
Today, China is the biggest consumer of red wine globally, with more than 130 million 9-litre cases downed by Chinese drinkers last year!
More and more, red wine is replacing beer and baijiu at fancy banquet dinners, not only because it’s seen as more exotic but because people think it’s healthier than rice-based spirits.
Some popular wine brands to try include: Jian Nan Chun 剑南春 (jiàn nán chūn) , Fen 汾酒 (fén jiǔ) and Dong wine 董酒 (dǒng jiǔ) .
China’s most popular, and potent, alcoholic drink.
Like saké or vodka, baijiu 白酒 (bái jiǔ) is incredibly strong and has earned its nickname of “Chinese rocket fuel”, with its high 酒精度 (jiǔ jīng dù) alcohol percentages.
Some common baijiu brands include: 茅台 máo tái (35% - 50%), 西凤酒 xī fèng jiǔ (30% - 65%) and 五粮液 wǔ liáng yè (35% - 70%).
The superhuman strength of baijiu may be why many foreigners say they don’t have a taste for it. But you had better start trying, if you want to save face 面子 (miàn zi) when it comes time to gān bēi!
干杯 (gān bēi)!
干杯 (gān bēi) literally translates to “dry glass” but basically means “bottoms up” and comes directly after a toast.
It may seem unimportant on the outside, but it is in fact a crucial part of all social gatherings, and indeed, fostering 关系 (guān xi) - business relationships in China.
To refuse a toast of 干杯 (gān bēi) would be very unwise, as how much you drink shows your amount of respect.
So make sure you don’t step on anyone’s toes by knowing these drinking manners:
Avoid refusing to 干杯 (gān bēi) - you could be seen as rude or a wimp, or both
Unless you’re the host, don’t make the first toast - it’s disrespectful to steal the show
If you make a toast, finish your glass.
The toastee should take at least a gulp from their glass, this is known as 随意 (suí yì) and means to drink as you like.
For added politeness, tilt your empty glass forward after a toast to show you’ve finished
Don’t gān bēi with water - it’s bad luck!
Clinking your glass with your fellow diners also comes with a whole other set of rules.
If your glasses touch and make the celebratory “clink” noise, this means it’s gān bēi time.
No clink? No pressure to finish. Just sip as much as you like.
If you want to take things a bit slower, wedge your fingers between your glass and the other person’s when clinking. Again, no clink = no pressure to gān bēi.
Often you’re at a big, round dinner table and so when toasting, everyone simply taps their glass on the table before drinking.
If you’re really a stickler for the rules, remember: young people should clink the rim of their glass lower on the glass held by those senior to them (either in age or position).
Drinking in China means more than just whetting your whistle - it’s also about upholding your dignity and saving face or, 面子 (miàn zi) .
Some believe that those who have strong 酒胆 (jiǔ dǎn) or ‘drinking courage’, have strong 人品 (rén pǐn) - character.
So, it’s fine to get drunk at dinner.
In fact, it’ll make your hosts happy knowing they have showed you a proper good time.
For the ladies, there is less social pressure to gān bēi into oblivion, and it’s more relaxed for everyone at family gatherings, too.
But if you get invited out to a business dinner, you’d better watch out, because you’ll need to bring your drinking A-game to the table.
How to Survive
Yes, it’s fine to let your hair down and drink up at business and social events.
But here’s the kicker - you can get drunk but not to the point of being unable to speak or stand - or you may lose face.
So how do you strike the balance between getting a little buzzed or completely blind?
Well, it’s a fine line but nothing that can’t be fixed with a few survival tips:
- Pace yourself: Don’t overdo it with your gān bēis early on. Dinner will take hours, so if you can help it, take things slow from the first cup.
- Drink water and eat: If you're at a Chinese social gathering or business dinner there will be food, and plenty of it. Eat and hydrate regularly to avoid letting the alcohol get the better of you.
- Make good excuses: They don’t necessarily have to be true, but they have to be believable. Pretending to be staggeringly drunk or saying you’re trying to get pregnant (both man or woman) usually does the trick.
- Elect a drinking rep to drink all the shots on your company’s behalf!
- If you want to be a little sneaky, put tea in your glass. But don’t let anyone catch you!
So, what are your thoughts about the drinking culture in China? Tell us what you think or share your experiences, in the comments below! Please drink responsibly!