Chinese New Year is upon us! In honor of the coming year, I decided to dedicate a post to some Chinese drinking traditions that may come in handy for your celebrations.
Though other drinks--such as red wine, American Whiskey and even mixed drinks--have started to become more popular in recent years, the traditional drink for celebrations is Baijiu. Baijiu is an extremely strong drink and is usually served straight in tiny, cups.
Drinking in China is not usually done on its own, as the tradition is to drink while sharing a meal. That doesn’t mean that people don’t drink a lot, in fact, drinking while eating is a way to ensure that they can do more of both.
In China, the art of the toast takes on a whole new meaning. There are complicated rules associated with drinking. In the States, there might be a couple of toasts throughout the night; one at the beginning of the evening, and if it is a big event, the room might go around to propose a round of toasts. In China, however, drinking necessitates toasting. It is not considered polite to drink as an individual. In fact, anytime you want a sip of alcohol, you are expected to cheers with at least one other person to ensure that the drinking is communal.
Not all toasts are created equal. If it is a casual cheers, very few words need to be said other than ganbei, literally translated to dry glass. However, usually there are words of good health, and well wishes exchanged even if the drink is on the more casual side.
Very often, however, these toasts will go on ad nauseum with poetic orations of someone’s admirable qualities, or the accomplishments of their life and the health of their family.
As with everything in Chinese culture, the hierarchy of societal standing is very important to the custom. If someone is of higher standing than you, it is expected that you will give him an individual toast at some point during the night. This toast, requires you to walk around to wherever he is seated and clink glasses, while toasting his admirability.
There is subtlety too in the clinking of glasses. If one is of higher social rank, be sure to have your glass meet his at a lower level to symbolize your lower rank. You can accomplish this by lowering your glass, as well as by gently raising his toasting arm with your free hand from his forearm.
When one individual is of an obviously higher social standing than another, he will put up small resistance to the lowering glass. However, if you are being hosted by someone, and are of about equal social standing, the game of seeing whose glass ends up lower becomes almost comical, with glasses hitting the table before finally reaching a sort of equilibrium.
It is a sign of high respect to fill another’s glass with alcohol. Because it is such a demonstration of respect and social standing, few actions will illicit as strong of opposition as trying to fill another person’s glass for them. However, do not take this opposition for anger--though at times it will be hard to interpret the verbal and physical responses as anything but. It is typical in Chinese custom that such a strong demonstration of respect has to be met with an equally strong reaction to defer.
If you are not prepared for the fight of courtesy, do not be surprised to find your initial intention reversed, as your counterpart will in all likelihood yank the bottle from your hand and fill both of your glasses, only to propose a toast to your greatness.
As we have already discussed, drinking must be done communally. Additionally, Jiuliang or alcohol capability is a very desirable quality. Because of this, it can sometimes be a little tricky to get out of drinking without being impolite. There are a few situations that can help you out if you are looking to avoid over drinking.
Whether it is right or not, women are generally not expected to drink as much. So if you are a lady, looking to avoid drinking too much, you are in luck on this front. Generally, you can just refuse alcohol without experiencing too much pressure. Just shake your head vigorously and act like another drink would really affect your sensibilities.
Drinking and driving are a big no-no, that is strictly enforced by the Government. Thus, if you are planning to drive after the evening is over, you will never encounter any pushback with this excuse for not drinking.
There is also respect for people who are trying to drink less, either for mental or physical health. If you establish at the onset of the evening that you don’t drink, generally this policy will be respected.
However, whatever your reasons are for not drinking, expect that people will continue to offer you drinks. Chinese people are devilishly good at coming up with excuses for you to drink. Sometimes you will have to physically cover your glass with your hand to prevent unwanted libations.
Though you may not want to drink, be sure to graciously accept and initiate any toasts with a cup of tea. When proposing a toast for an individual however, it is not a proper ganbei toast, rather you are pei-ing them, or accompanying them, with their drink so that they don’t have to drink alone.
While drinking is a great way to lower social inhibitions, the Chinese surround drinking with an elaborate system of custom and courtesy. If you find yourself in a traditional setting for this Lunar New Year, be sure to not have your social guard too low, as you may insult your hosts, or be unwittingly coerced into drinking way too much.