Anyone living in China long enough is aware of the culture’s love for alcohol. This is not to say that “spicy” drinks are less desired elsewhere, but alcohol tends to be one of the main ingredients for any social gathering between friends, families, colleagues, etc.
Most newcomers to the Middle Kingdom might encounter strange and new ways of getting drunk, some of which may seem weird or seem enjoyable.
While the ability of “handling liquor” is a different question on its own, the culture of drinking in China is something that anyone who plans on having any form of outdoor social life will have to adjust to on some level. Social outings with friends, family reunions, business meetings, and even just normal dinners, will more often than not, involve some level of drinking.
For first time witnesses of the drinking style in China, surely there may appear to be some abnormalities, such as “bottoming-up” (干杯－gān bēi) a glass of red wine. But foreigners must keep in mind that drinking culture in China has been in existence for dozens if not hundreds of years before alcohol was even introduced to the west. With that in mind, it is advised to not try to criticize or “correct” local drinkers, but instead, to follow, and enjoy!
One of the first thing foreigners will notice when drinking out with their Chinese friends, are the somewhat odd locations. Bars and nightclubs, while somewhat popular with younger drinkers, are not usually the “go-to” place if wanting to have a few drinks and laughs with friends. It is more common to drink in a restaurant, and perhaps later on head over to a “KTV” to sing a few songs and, of course, keep drinking. Bars and clubs are seen as more of a place for finding a date, not as a place to hang out with friends. The idea being, that in a restaurant setting, all the attention of everyone present is focused on the members of your party, without the need of entertainment such as music, or flirtatious bar-goers. This way ensures that you are there to be with friends, not to look at pretty girls/handsome guys.
Just like with dining, drinking has its own set of formalities that are normally tightly followed by Chinese drinkers, and can be clearly witnessed as well. For example, it is not common for someone sitting at a table to drink from their glass by themselves without doing a small “cheers” with someone else at the table. You will rarely see someone sipping on their drink alone throughout a meal without clanking glasses every few minutes. Similarly, it is also very acceptable to say a few words or a small toast beforehand, but it doesn’t have to be any sort of elaborate speech.
When drinking with someone older than you, if clanking glasses, make sure your glass is always lower than his/her glass, to avoid disrespect. It is also in good manner to fill their glass after they have finished their drink, but it doesn’t have to be done each time. Similarly, avoid leaving your own glass empty. Directly after finishing the contents of your glass, the glass should be refilled. If someone else does not offer to do it to you directly, pour your own drink!
Refusing a drink
This is a common problem for many first-timers in China. Even those who can handle drinks in their own countries, the Chinese habit of frequent GanBei’s can be intimidating, especially when dealing with BaiJiu （白酒－Chinese Rice vodka）. While it is often said that refusing a drink might seem impolite, in most cases, if explained nicely, it is totally normal to just say “I’ll sit this round out”. It is wise, however, to not start drinking at all if you feel like you might be giving up before other members of your party. So if you decide to start drinking, be prepared to go all the way!
Tip: If drinking in a restaurant, it is wise to eat slowly in the same frequency of the drinking, rather than eating a lot first and then starting to down drinks with the table. Also, be sure to have an accompanying cup of tea beside you to sip from time to time.
If you do choose to keep drinking, be ready for some intense stomach workouts. In China, most drinks are “downed”, meaning drinking all in one shot. The difference is, however, that no shot glasses are being used. In restaurants, beer or Baijiu will normally be drunk out of a small glass about twice the size of a normal shot glass. These glasses are meant for downing most of the time. The real challenge comes when downing whole bottles of beer. This practice is a common “competition” seen in bars, to see who can down a full bottle first. It may sound easy, but the real trick is to not let the built-up gas explode out of your mouth in the process.
Tip: Stick a straw inside the bottle with the head of the straw bent out of the opening. This will allow the bottle to be emptied much quicker, and with less gas built up in your mouth.
Chinese love games, especially when it comes to drinking! The most common go-to game in any bar is called “ShaiZi” (色子), meaning dice. While there are several different games that can be played with ShaiZi, normally just saying ShaiZi will refer to one specific game, where each player has 5 dice, and will require bluffing and face-reading skills similar to those of poker. This game can be played with two people and above. Every round, the loser drinks. This game is recommended to learn, as it will come in handy in many situations in bars. It is also a good icebreaker if you are on a date!