Ganbei! Drinking etiquette in China
Photo by Carsten Tolkmit
As with dining, Chinese drinking culture comes with a number of rules and assumptions that may be unintuitive to foreigners – read on to find out the do’s and don’ts of downing a tipple.
Proposing toasts in China
Chinese people often drink alcohol when they attend a large group dinner – particularly baijiu, a very potent and distinctly flavored Chinese liquor, although wine is becoming increasingly popular among middle-class diners. And if you attend such a dinner you’ll most likely encounter the word ganbei (literally “empty your glass”), which is the Chinese equivalent of “cheers!”
If the diners are family members or colleagues, there may be a ganbei before the group begins eating, at which time everyone will take a drink. Note that there is not necessarily a pressure to drink your whole glass – that is usually reserved when someone is making a personal one-to-one toast with someone with whom they share a deep relationship. If the person offering the toast does want you to drink your whole glass, then they will probably say “gan le“, either after saying “ganbei” or instead of it.
If you’re not sure what to do, let the other person take the lead. Generally a small sip should be fine. If you do not drink at all, take a sip of tea or another non-alcoholic beverage. Refusing a ganbei outright will be seen as very rude and make the person who proposed it lose face.
After the first group drink, diners can propose toasts to the whole table or to individuals as they wish. Typically the most senior person at the table will make their own toasts first. Everyone else who wishes to propose a toast should propose one with the senior diner before they move on to anyone else.
To propose a toast with someone else, just stand up, get their attention, raise your glass, say you wish him/her good health, or wealth, or anything similarly positive, clink your glass with them and drink. If it is a big table, or a casual occasion, sometimes people will stand up and walk to the person’s side before making the toast.
The person proposing the toast should make sure that their glass is lower than the glasses of those they are speaking to, as this is a gesture of respect. Also, if it is a formal meal then once someone starts offering up individual toasts they must make sure they toast everyone at the table – they cannot leave anyone hanging, as their negligence may be interpreted as a dislike of him or her. Of course, you don’t need to make all of those toasts in a row – space them out over the course of the meal or nobody will have time to eat anything!
If you are drinking casually with friends, there is no need to worry about the ganbei system. If your friends do decide to use it, they will just do a light clink and drink, as a way to show their friendship. Following the rules above will not be necessary.
Acceptable drinking times
Chinese people generally do not drink too much during the working week; binge drinking often happens on Friday night or on weekends. That can change if they have business meetings to attend, though – drinking is common during such meetings, whether they happen at lunchtime or dinnertime. So if you see a drunken-looking businessman in China, he may have just come from such a meeting.
Rules for those who do not drink alcohol
If you do not drink alcohol, or just do not want to be pressured into drinking a series of alcoholic toasts, you should mention this to the other people at the table beforehand; there shouldn’t be a problem. But as mentioned above, do still participate in the toasts by sipping a non-alcoholic drink like tea instead. Likewise, if you would rather drink beer than baijiu (which is a very strong liquor) then announce that beforehand too.
Sometimes businessmen or high-ranking people will have a person to drink on their behalf, if they are only prepared to drink a little because they need to attend to other business later. This might seem strange, but it’s a concession to the mood of the room – they don’t want to spoil the fun, so their stand-in (or their stand-in’s liver) takes the hit for them. This often happens when the diners play a drinking game such as huaquan (a game rather like Rock, Paper, Scissors in which players have to hold up the same number of fingers as their opponent), in which the losers have to take a drink.
It is generally agreed upon that women do not have to drink as much as men, and there will be less pressure on women to drink a lot.
Useful Chinese words and expressions