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干杯! (Gānbēi)! Know What to Do When Drinking in China

Aug. 18, 2017

Chinese General Drinking

Drinking culture in China, compared drinking culture in Western societies is quite different. And, by “drinking” I don’t mean tea or juice! Just as most other societies like to “put one back” and have one (or many!) alcoholic beverages in an evening, so too do the Chinese. However, it’s good to do your homework before getting tipsy in China. You should know what you will be expected to drink and what kind of behavior or etiquette will be appreciated by your Chinese companions. In this article, I will introduce to you “4 Kinds of Alcoholic Drinks in China” and “4 Tips for Drinking with the Chinese”.

I’ve lived in China for over a year now. My classmates in Beijing and I would sometimes go out on weekends. Usually, we would have dinner and maybe find a bar that was similar to what we knew back home. Usually, we could sit at the bar, stand up and move around, and meet other people. It was familiar to the styles of our home countries, but not exactly the “local” experience. Eventually, after a few months we were sometimes invited to drink with new Chinese friends. The experience was quite different!

In China, it’s likely that you’ll be invited to drink alcohol while here. If you plan on doing business in China, you should know that drinking heavily together before the deal, not after, is very common and shows that there is trust and closeness between the clients. So, before raising your glass, study up on what you’ll be drinking and how to impress your Chinese friends and colleagues while having a good time.

First, here’s what you’re most likely to be drinking. Remember that 酒 (jiǔ) means “alcoholic drink”, so almost all of the Chinese names of these drinks include this suffix.

4 Kinds of Alcoholic Drinks in China

白酒 (Báijiǔ) Liquor and Spirits.

Chinese General Liquor

Also called “白干 (báigān)” or “烧酒 (shāojiǔ)” in China. Maybe the most famous, or infamous Chinese alcoholic drink is “白酒 (báijiǔ)”. Baijiu is sometimes called “white wine” due to translation, but it’s more like whiskey or vodka. Baijiu is a spirit usually distilled from sorghum or corn. The strong and pungent drink originated during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) and became a popular drink at government functions. It is now one of the country’s most popular spirits. Maybe you heard of “茅台 Moutai”. It is a brand of “白酒 Baijiu”, a distilled Chinese liquor (spirit). Maotai has been used on official occasions in feasts with foreign heads of state and distinguished guests visiting China. It is the only alcoholic beverage presented as an official gift by Chinese embassies in foreign countries. Beware, this stuff can burn!

啤酒 (Píjiǔ) Beer.

Chinese General Beer

Although some form of ancient beer has been around China for thousands of years, modern beer as we know it was brought into China in the early twentieth century by the Russians and Germans. The name “啤 ()” is translated from the English name “beer” and “酒 (jiǔ)” means alcoholic drink. Beer is very popular in summer, especially in the northeast of China. The low cost of beer and its suitability with food makes it popular throughout the country today. Beer in China is usually not as strong as in other countries, so it’s a good choice if you want to drink slowly.

葡萄酒 (Pútao jiǔ) Wine; grape.

Chinese General Wine

Wine made from grapes, similar to the famous kind associated with France, is also becoming popular in China. Nowadays, many Chinese people like to drink “葡萄酒 (pútao jiǔ)” because they feel it has health benefits and is fashionable. Recently, there are more and more social occasions that include Westerners as friends or business partners in these situations, red wine will be offered to make us foreigners feel at home (even if we prefer beer!).

黄酒 (Huángjiǔ) Yellow wine.

Chinese General Yellow Wine

Chinese yellow rice or millet wine is one of the oldest wines in the world. It’s not as strong as “白酒 (báijiǔ)” and is often used as cooking. “黄酒 (huángjiǔ)” varies in color and is usually made by grain. “绍兴 Shaoxing” wine is one famous yellow wine in China that you can find throughout the country. Most foreigners prefer “黄酒 (huángjiǔ)” to other Chinese liquors since it is sweeter and less strong.

Now that you know what you’re going to drink, let me give you some advice on drinking etiquette in China.

4 Tips for Drinking with the Chinese

● 劝酒 (Quànjiǔ).

It’s inevitable that you’ll be invited to drink, or receive a “劝酒 (quànjiǔ)”. Everyone nearby will take a drink at the same time. This is difficult for us foreigners at first, because we are so used to taking casual sips of our drinks without following those around us. However, in China, usually everyone drinks together at certain times. Someone next to you may “劝酒 (quànjiǔ)” which means “let’s drink together” and is a way to propose a toast. A good rule is to follow those around you, especially the elders at the table. When you clink glasses together, it’s a good idea to lower yours and clink the top of your glass a bit lower than they hold theirs to show respect.

● 干杯 (Gānbēi)!

Usually, people say that “干杯 (gānbēi)” means “cheers”. However, it actually translates to “dry glass”. So, what “干杯 (gānbēi)” really means is “bottoms up!”. The Chinese are very busy people and they drink fast, too. While we’re used to taking moderate sips back home, in China “one shot” is often the way they say “cheers”! Watch those around you and follow to see how much they drink. It’s a good idea to copy their actions.

● 不醉不休 (Bù zuì bù xiū).

In China, there are not as many bars as there are back home. It seems that people don’t drink as often as we do. However, when they do drink in China, they tend to drink a lot! One expression, “不醉不休 (bù zuì bùxiū)” means “drink until drunk”. It’s not looked down upon here to have a few too many, especially at business dinners. In addition, many Chinese expect that foreigners can drink more than them, so they accelerate the drinks when we’re around. Look out!

● Eat! Eat! Eat!
Unlike at Western bars or parties, the Chinese almost always have food around them when they are drinking. These dishes could be elaborate banquet meals, street food or simple, delicious snacks such as sliced potatoes with vinegar. Although we usually eat and drink separately where I’m from, in China that food is there for a reason: to keep you from falling over! Eat as much fatty meat as you can to be sure your stomach is ready to absorb all that alcohol. Since the Chinese tend to drink a lot in one night, eating will help you keep your head in the game and feel better in the morning.

I hope this article didn’t scare you into thinking that drinking in China is some complicated game that you won’t be able to remember. The Chinese usually don’t expect foreigners to understand all of the little rules and manners, but they do appreciate it when we show that we understand their culture. A little research goes a long way. 干杯! Gānbēi!

Quiz:

1. Which of the following is not another name for “白酒 (báijiǔ)”?

A. 烧酒 (Shāojiǔ)

B. 黄酒 (Huángjiǔ)

C. 白干 (Báigān)

See Answer

―Written by Philip Reed―
Philip Reed is a Mandarin Chinese student in Beijing. He has been studying for one year in China
and before that had an interest in Chinese at university in the U.S. He loves Chinese music and culture
and can sing a few Mandarin songs at the KTV when he has free time!

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