Baijiu is the most popular spirit in China by a considerable margin. This means that baijiu will be served at all meals, state functions, celebrations and business transactions.
There are a number of formalities that should be observed when drinking baijiu. Failure to recognise these expectations can often lead to offence. This can be avoided if the correct protocol is followed.
Essential Rules of Serving Baijiu
Baijiu should always be served at room temperature. If the baijiu is warm, this is also acceptable. Baijiu should never be chilled.
The room temperature baijiu should be poured into a small, ceramic pitcher. From here, the spirit will be poured into small, specialist glasses. These resemble shot glasses in size, but are different, distinct, vessels.
Essential Rules of Drinking Baijiu
There are very important rules to observe while drinking baijiu in a communal setting. Hospitality is treated very seriously in China. A reputation as a poor host can be very difficult to live with. Generosity and good manners are pivotal.
There are three important terms that any guest in China should learn. Jiupin translates as, “good drinking manners”, meaning that you should always behave with respect while intoxicated. This goes hand-in-hand with juiliang, which means, “good drinking capacity”, or a high tolerance for alcohol. It also helps to have Jiudan, which means, “good drinking courage.”
Fill all Glasses at the Table
When dining in China, baijiu is served in small, communal pitcher. If you refill your glass, you will be expected to fill all others at the same time. You will also be expected to fill these glasses to the very brim. Half filling a glass is considered poor hospitality, and can be interpreted as miserly.
Always Toast Before Drinking, and Return all Toasts
It is considered bad manners not to toast your company before drinking baijiu. Equally, failing to return a toast from a dining or drinking companion will cause offense. See also: Essential Rules for Toasting with Baijiu.
Never Drink Before Being Toasted, or Toasting
Baijiu is a social drink. It is considered impolite to drink without company while in China. Always seek a companion to enjoy your baijiu with. If you have not been toasted, and your host has already made three toasts, you may toast another guest.
Never Stop Drinking Before Your Host
Intoxication is not considered to be bad manners in China. Leaving a dinner sober is sometimes considered to be a lapse in hospitality. Refusing or declining a drink will not be well received. A guest should never cease consuming baijiu until their host has done the same. If you wish to abstain, make this very clear at the start of the evening. You must stand by this judgment throughout. It is not acceptable in Chinese culture to enjoy one round of drinks, then decline another. The only way around this is to allow the backs of your fingers to touch another guest’s glass when they toast you. This is a symbol for, “I would rather not drink this round.” Use this action very sparingly, as it may cause offence, and never attempt to do this when toasted by your host or a business superior. If the other guest replies with, “suiyi”, your wishes are being respected. Suiyi translates as, “at your leisure.”
Always Empty Your Glass
A popular toast in China is, “ganbei”. This translates as, “dry cup.” Guests will be expected to drink their full glass of baijiu in one motion. It is not commonplace to sip on spirits in China. Drinking baijiu is sometimes seen as an endurance test. Drinking a shot in one fluid motion without flinching is often regarded as a test of mettle. The exception to this is a toast of “banbei”, which means that you will only be expected to drink half of your glass.
Hold the Glass with Your Right Hand
Even if you are left-handed, you should always use your right hand to toast and drink baijiu. You may place your left hand under the glass when being toasted. This shows humility and respect.
Do Not Leave the Table with Baijiu Left in the Pitcher
Your host will announce when a meal is complete. This will usually result in all guests leaving the table quickly. However, it is considered bad manners to leave baijiu in a pitcher. If applicable, refill all glasses and raise one final toast to your fellow guests.
Essential Rules for Toasting with Baijiu
Toasting is an essential part of alcohol culture in China. It is very important that any guest follows official guidelines. Guidelines for toasting with baijiu include:
Always Allow Your Host to Make the First Toast
The host, or head of the table, should always make the first toast. In fact, the host may lead toasting up to three times. If your host stands to make their toast, you should stand too.
If Toasted, Return the Toast
If your host, or another guest, raises a toast to you, return this. Simply acknowledging the toast and drinking is very poor etiquette.
Do Not Make a Speech
A toast in Chinese culture differs slightly from the west. There is no need to make a speech. Toasting somebody is considered to be a great honour, and there is no need to elaborate.
Hold Your Glass Low
In the west, somebody issuing a toast will ask their guests to raise their glasses. This is not the case in China, where holding your glass low is considered a sign of honour, respect and humility. These traits are very important in China. Keep your glass as low as possible when toasting a guest, as this shows that you are humble. If the guest considers you to be of greater importance of stature, they will nudge your glass a little higher than theirs. This can become a battle of wills, as everybody as the table will wish to demonstrate their humility. You will need to understand your place in the social pecking order, and act accordingly.