Modern day China has a rapidly growing wine and spirits market, with even some of the world’s most prestigious names like Château Lafite Rothschild taking root in China. But this market didn’t arise from China embracing Western drink products and consumerism, nor does it come from China’s rapid globalization and economic development over recent years.
In fact, China has a rich and complex history with alcohol, with long-established traditions and etiquette when it comes to alcohol consumption. This form of consumption is usually social or celebratory and has historically been an integral part of Chinese culture.
The famous Chinese proverb, “酒逢知己千杯少” (Jiǔ féng zhījǐ qiān bēi shǎo), translates to “with a close friend, a thousand cups of wine is far too little”, accurately depicts Chinese drinking culture and the role that alcohol has in forming and maintaining social relationships. Drinking has long been a way to actively build relationships in Chinese society and culture, whether this is with friends, family, partners, or even professional relationships in the workplace.
This means that drinking in China is appropriate during group meals and other social group events, such as KTV, business functions, weddings, birthdays, etc.
Alcohol is also used to celebrate special occasions, like the Chinese New Year/Spring Festival, the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, or even weddings and birthday banquets. People gather around tables with family and friends and enjoy good food while drinking alcohol together.
Chinese Drinking Etiquette: How to Properly “Ganbei”
When traveling abroad in China, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Chinese friends extend an invitation to drink on multiple occasions during the trip. Chinese people believe that drinking together helps strengthen friendships, so it’s common for acquaintances to get together for a few drinks after work or school each day during their breaks from studying and working.
Chinese drinkers will convey cheers by saying “Ganbei” (干杯) to their friends. The literal translation is “empty cup,” which is used to encourage guests to finish their entire glass. It’s considered rude to not at least take a sip when someone is offered a toast, but it is not necessary to finish the entire beverage (though it would be much appreciated).
Basic rules when making a toast in China
Most meals with alcohol in China usually start with a toast, and it can be considered rude to start eating or drinking before the entire group has had their beverages and food also prepared – the idea is to be considerate and wait for everyone else to start dining at the same time. Moreover, while this can vary between social settings, it’s generally impolite to drink before the host makes a toast. Usually, the first toast should be an “empty cup” as a sign of respect and as a way to start the meal or event. However, this applies more so to drinks served in shot glasses (generally spirits such as baijiu, sake, etc.), as it would be uncomely and difficult (but not impossible) to do so with drinks that are served in larger quantities and proper glasses (wines, cocktails, and champagnes).
When making a toast, people usually use the right hand as a sign of respect, and to keep their glasses at a lower position than others (especially the host). For extra formality, the left hand can also be placed underneath the cup while it is being held by the right. The proper way to receive or offer a glass of alcohol is always with both hands.
Drinking etiquette and hospitality in China also mean that a guest’s glass will probably never be empty. It’s a custom for the host or friends to automatically refill each other’s glasses to the brim whenever it’s empty or a toast has been made, even when it is not requested. In general, younger drinkers should be refilling the glass of those that are older or outrank them (boss, more senior friend, an older family member, etc.), but this isn’t a very strict rule when going out with a group of friends.
Alcohol… a friendship barometer?
While Chinese people generally do take pride in how much alcohol they are able to consume responsibly, the amount of alcohol that one drinks can also be perceived as the amount of trust one has in their drinking companions. It’s important to emphasize that drinking alcohol is a social activity.
Drinking after a “ganbei” / finishing the entire glass can show the sincerity of your words and toast. Your respect and genuineness can be measured by how much alcohol you’re willing to consume at the host’s behest, or of your own volition, and even by how much you influence others to drink. While the West may negatively view urging others to drink as a form of peer pressure, it is for better or worse, a norm in China and an expression of friendship.
This is called “劝酒” quànjiǔ, and has been a practice since ancient times. For example, the Tang dynasty poet Wang Wei (王维, 701-761) used quanjiu in his farewell poem to a friend leaving for faraway Anxi: “I plead you to drink another glass (with me), for there are no familiar friends beyond Yang Pass.”
Chinese drinking culture: Politely Abstaining
Seeing how intertwined alcohol and social relationships are in China, not following drinking etiquette can be risky if guests aren’t aware of the cultural norms or the polite ways to turn down a drink. The expectancy to drink also doesn’t mean that it’s acceptable to appear overly intoxicated, especially for the host.
Guests naturally can be inebriated and are not expected to remain sober given the host’s hospitality, but they should never be drunk to the point of making a huge scene. The overarching Chinese value of “saving face” (reputation) applies even when drunk. In fact, “saving face” is tied to how much alcohol one can consume without becoming a drunken embarrassment.
How can one remain relatively sober despite all these drinking pressures and rules?
Refusing to drink more will be easier if a guest establishes their limitations at the beginning of the meal rather than midway. One can politely say “我酒量不好” (wǒ jiǔliàng bùhǎo) to express a low capacity for alcohol intake, or give some sort of excuse in advance (not feeling well, having an early morning the next day, health problems, etc.). Some people will also physically cover their cup with a hand to stop an over-hospitable host that wants to keep the liquor flowing.
Oftentimes it may also be possible to switch out traditional forms of strong Chinese liquor like baijiu with light Chinese beer (such as Qingdao), which helps guests drink and toast more without getting intoxicated as fast or severely. This of course depends on what drink options are available at the venue.
It’s also possible to not drink at all but still participate in drinking culture and relationship building by using another beloved Chinese beverage – tea. One can “以茶代酒 (yi cha dai jiu),” which means to substitute alcohol with tea. This is a great alternative for those that cannot drink alcohol or don’t have any alcohol on hand for the occasion, but not always possible at corporate functions.
The Power of Friendship
Another possibility is to have a good friend drink on your behalf. Though this may not always work in a business setting, there are occasions where stronger drinking companions can take on a toast from someone else. This often occurs when guests see that their friends are struggling to keep up with the group, and thus offer to drink their friend’s obligatory toast in addition to their own.
The underlying key behind all these methods is to remain respectful, tactful, and firm. Since alcohol reflects the quality of your relationship with your drinking companions, it’s important to establish that your refusal is not a sign of disrespect or animosity. Drinking in China is about human connection and celebration rather than just drinking for the sake of alcohol, so a good host should never force their guests to consume more than is desired.
A key feature of Chinese drinking culture: Alcohol in the Workplace and Modern Pushback
Surprisingly to some foreigners, alcohol also has a very prominent role in Chinese professional culture. This does not refer to co-workers perhaps grabbing a few drinks after hours, but to work banquets, networking events, client dinners, or anything with a more social element.
The same cultural concepts from before (alcohol being used to build connections) remain true in the business world; trust and respect between companies and clients are built through drinking together. It’s expected to drink in business that Chinese companies will often have designated drinking employees, or juniors will act as proxy drinkers for their seniors.
Bonnie Girard, President of China Channel Ltd, shares that when officials realized she was the sole foreign representative of her company for a networking event, they arranged for soldiers from a local base to join the event just so they could be her drinking partners and help represent her company.
Drinking at work can also be great for networking, with respectful toasts to important clients and executives allowing employees to interact with those higher up on the corporate ladder.
However, the Chinese workplace drinking culture has seen its fair share of problems in recent years. In August 2020, an employee of Xiamen International Bank refused to drink and was slapped by his supervisor for it. Women are even more vulnerable in these scenarios, as two female employees of Didi Global Inc. and Alibaba respectively reported cases of sexual assault by clients and superiors after heavy professional drinking.
What alcohols are popular in China?
Baijiu is the most popular alcohol in China, made from sorghum, rice, or wheat, and contains very high alcohol content. The most famous premium baijiu is Kweichow Moutai, which sold at Sotheby’s for 1.4million USD for 24 bottles in 2021.
Red wine, brandy, whisky, and spirits such as tequila and vodka have also been gaining popularity, with demand for spirits generally growing amongst younger consumers.
Wine Culture in China
The people of China have been drinking wine for over 3,000 years because of the country’s rich history with grapes and other produce like plums and peaches (which also lend themselves well to becoming alcohol). As such, there are currently over 50 types of grapes used in Chinese winemaking—some blended together while others remain singularly varietal—and this number continues to grow each year as more varieties become available thanks to technological advances in winemaking.
Historically, wine has been tied to art and culture. The famous calligrapher Wang Xizhi of the Eastern Jin dynasty created his greatest work while drunk off of wine, and failed to surpass it while sober. A number of ancient poets like Li Bai and Han Yu have all written about wine and the act of creating art with wine.
Red wine’s popularity in China might also be due to its auspicious red color, a predominant lucky color in Chinese culture. Traditional Chinese Medicine also believes that red wine provides some health benefits, making it a healthier alternative to baijiu.
Wine as a Premium Commodity
Today, China is one of the world’s top 10 biggest wine-producing countries, with Ningxia as its most internationally recognized production region. Chinese consumers are therefore more willing to try Chinese wines than before, the market no longer being solely dominated by France, Italy, the U.S., or Australia.
Chinese wine consumers generally have better education and socioeconomic status, and drinking wine is seen as part of a more elevated and luxurious lifestyle. Wine consumption is therefore tied to status. Studies have shown that Chinese buyers tend to buy wine based on brand reputation and origin, leaning towards famous brands as a way of risk avoidance. Since wine is a social and premium product, it’s generally drunk at business functions and special occasions, as well as being bought as gifts.
While the consumer taste profile for wine varies greatly across China’s 1.4 billion population and has been becoming much more sophisticated, a universal preference for fuller-bodied, less acidic wines (like a Cabernet Sauvignon) was observed.
Drinking Etiquette Cheatsheet
Chinese drinking culture is complex and one of the most important aspects of Chinese social life, as it has been for centuries. It’s important to recall that alcohol is used as a way of building relationships, which is why the Chinese drink a lot. Alcohol is also used to shape business relations and one’s drinking ability has a very real impact on outcomes in the corporate and professional world.
- It’s rude to not drink if someone offers you a toast.
- Both hands should always be used when giving or receiving a cup.
- “Ganbei” is used as “cheers,” but literally translates to “empty cup” and is used to encourage friends to completely finish the cup.
- Alcohol consumption can be used as a measure of hospitality and friendship. So, it’s important to be tactful with one’s words when refusing a drink.
- It’s possible to limit one’s drinking without being rude by switching to a lighter beverage such as beer, finding a friend to drink on your behalf, communicating with the host beforehand, offering a proper excuse, or using tea to completely abstain from alcohol.
Author: Gloria Tsang