Chinese nationals take alcohol very seriously. Since the dawn of time, alcohol has been very important to the people of this country. In the earliest eras of Chinese history, alcohol was considered a luxury only applicable to the most prestigious members of society. Soldiers would drink wine to toast a military victory and the vanquishing of an opponent, and civilians deemed worthy of an audience with the Emperor would be entitled to sample this nectar.
The introduction of baijiu changed the approach to alcohol in China. In modern times, anybody can – and does – enjoy access to this spirit. There are a number of societal and cultural norms that should be observed. Failing to follow these guidelines can be seen as a lack of respect by a Chinese national.
Thankfully, a Chinese citizen will always be willing to help and advise. Although it’s hugely inadvisable to make an assumption surrounding drinking culture, as offense can be inadvertently be causes, questions will always be welcomed. A western national showing an interest in Chinese culture, and showing a willingness to embrace the customs of the country, will always be welcomed.
Baijiu in the Home
Baijiu is largely considered to be a social drink. Drinking alone is often considered to be bad luck in China, especially where baijiu is concerned. When drinking baijiu, you should also have somebody seated to your right, and to toast them before commencing drinking.
If you decide to practice drinking baijiu ahead of a social occasion, keep this to yourself. You may want to prepare yourself for the strength of baijiu, ensure that you do not struggle to consume it when with company. This is a wise decision, but again, not something to share with company. Your potential friends or business associates will not understand your decision, and you will inadvertently give poor impression of yourself.
Baijiu While Dining
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Baijiu almost always accompanies meals in China, whether you are dining at home or in a restaurant. The brand and aroma of the baijiu will typically depend on which territory you are dining in. Different brands of baijiu will be selected, based upon the local cuisine. The baijiu will always be served at room temperature, or even slightly warm.
If you are invited to dine in China, never take the seat at the head of the table. This is reserved for your host, and it is considered very bad manners to seat yourself in such a position. If you are unsure of where to sit, wait to be directed.
When it comes to drinking baijiu, a bottle will usually be emptied into a ceramic jug in the middle of the table. You are entitled to refill your glass at any time, but always ensure that you also refill the glasses of your dining companions. Fill these glasses to the very brim. You will not be judged harshly if you overfill the glass and spill a little of the baijiu. You will, however, be thought of as stingy if you take a safety-first approach and only half-fill a glass.
In western society, a host will usually raise one toast at the start of the meal. Chinese alcohol culture is slightly different. You should always allow your host to make the first toast before you eat or drink. However, any time you wish to drink, you should turn to the person to your right and toast them. Drinking without toasting, or waiting to be toasted, is considered to be very disrespectful in China.
There are two primary toasts connected with baijiu. “Ganbei” translates as, “empty the glass” and you will be expected to do just that. It is customary to show your companions your empty glass. “Benbei”, however, is a more relaxed toast. This means you can drink at your leisure, and will only be expected to drink half the glass at most.
You must also never refuse a toast at a Chinese meal. Doing so is considered to be very disrespectful. It does not matter if the toast came from your host or a fellow diner. If you are unable to drink baijiu, you should make this clear before you start dining. Most Chinese nationals will accept this, and allow you to choose an alternative. This could be beer, wine, or even water. Changing your mind halfway through a meal, however, is never acceptable.
You should never leave a dining table before your host, and you should never leave baijiu in the middle of the table. If you notice that the meal is winding down and there is still baijiu remaining, refill your glass and those of your fellow diners. If you leave the table sober and not full to bursting, your host will feel that they have not performed their duties appropriately.
Alcohol and Business
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Alcohol also plays a very important role in doing business in China – especially baijiu. If you are looking to arrange a meeting with Chinese nationals, it will often take place in a restaurant or bar. Even a business lunch will see plenty of baijiu consumed, as the spirit is believed to bless the venture with good fortune.
Another reason for the use of baijiu in a business setting is that your Chinese hosts will be assessing you. If you are prepared to join them in drinking baijiu, it will show fortitude. The Chinese are aware that baijiu is extremely strong by the standards of western alcohol. If you can keep up with your hosts, matching them shot for shot, you will earn respect. In the eyes of a Chinese national, a willingness to compromise your usual tastes shows that you can be trusted will do whatever is necessary to meet the needs of their business. Being prepared to respect and embrace Chinese customs will also ingratiate you with such company.
The etiquette surrounding baijiu while doing business is very similar to while dining. You must always raise a toast before drinking, and you must never refuse a toast. If you are unable or unwilling to drink baijiu, explain this before you commence the meeting. However, you must be aware that some Chinese nationals will look upon this unfavourably unless you are declining on health grounds.
How you toast is also very important in China. You should always show humility and deference to your hosts. This means that you must hold your glass lower than the individual you are toasting, or who is toasting you. You may find that another individual attempts to edge their glass lower than your own. You will need to use your judgment as to whether you accept this, or lower your own glass further. Everybody at the meeting will be keen to display their humility and respect. One thing is certain, however; your glass should never be higher than your host, or anybody in a senior, executive position within the company that you hope to do business with.
Never worry about growing intoxicated at a business meeting in China. Unlike western counterparts, the Chinese do not consider this to be unprofessional. If you do become intoxicated, your will likely be treated considerably more warmly. This is demonstrating that you can be trusted, and you are one of the team.
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