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How to Get Your Drink On

In a country where showing the right degree of respect can make or break a business deal, it's essential to know the etiquette of drinking

05·04·2012

One of the first things that any new arrival to China learns is that food is a priority, so much so that rather than saying “Hi,” neighbors and friends are more likely to great each other with “Chi le ma?” (吃了吗?, Have you eaten?)

We often find an excuse for holding big feasts, whether it’s for a wedding, a child’s birthday or even for a funeral, friendly gathering or business meeting. No matter the occasion, there’s one indispensible item at every feast: liquor. Chinese dining culture could just as easily be called banquet drinking culture (酒桌文化 jiǔ zhuō wénhuà),since “a feast without liquor cannot be called a feast” (无酒不成席 wú jiǔ bùchéng xí).

But you can’t just drink in China; there are rules of culture and etiquette that must be followed. If you visit a more traditional family, especially in the countryside, expect to find that they use a square wooden table at mealtime. The two seats facing the living room’s door are usually saved for the most distinguished guests, with the left seat more prestigious than the right one. These are usually reserved for the hostess’ father, brother or any other important person in her family. The accompanying guests should toast those in the seats of honor first. Later, the distinguished guests will return the favor by toasting them back, after which the people at each table can clink their glasses at will.

That’s how Han Chinese typically get their drink on, but the tippling rules vary for different minorities. Two years ago, I was honored to join a meal with several Mongolians on the Inner Mongolian grasslands, where the host sang folk songs for the guests and presented each with a bowl of pure fermented mare’s milk. The role of the guest is to take the cup with both hands and use her ring finger to flick one drop into the air and one to the ground, and then rub a drop on her forehead. These actions convey worship and gratitude to the sky, the earth and the ancestors. You’re expected to drink the whole bowl, after which the host presents the imbiber with a pure white hada (哈达 a Mongolian ceremonial scarf). The host moves on to the next honored guest, and it’s only when everybody’s acceptably drunk that the host considers his or her duty done.

In cities, ingrained rules of seniority when it comes to drinking still exist, but are not as obvious as they are in the countryside. That one must master the art of banquet drinking to succeed in business and politics is a no-brainer, but the etiquette varies according to the circumstances.

Worried you’ll lose track of all these rules? Never fear, as per usual, Weibo’s there to help you out. A series of drinking rules has made the rounds. Follow these, and you’ll be able to tackle any Chinese social gathering.

  • Take your turn to toast elders or superiors after they have emptied their glasses.
  • Use both hands to hold your cup when toasting others.
  • It’s fine for many people to offer a toast to one person, but one person should not attempt to toast everybody at once.
  • When you propose a toast to others, you should drink more than they do.
  • When you toast, always keep your cup lower than those of others, especially your elders or superiors, as a sign of respect.
  • Toasting should move clockwise around the table.
  • When clinking glasses, you need to say something.

 

Follow those rules, and you’ll be well on your way to drinking like Li Bai (李白) (701-762), who is referred to as shi xian (诗仙 immortal poet) and jiu xian (酒仙 immortal alcoholic) in historical Chinese literature. In his poetic masterpieces, contempt towards powerful politicians and the pursuit of freedom get equal play with the liquor to which he was enslaved.

China has been a largely agricultural country over the course of its 5,000 year history, and most of the alcohol consumed was made from grains. But at what point did the harvest lead to the hooch?

A popular legend goes that Xia Dynasty (2070 BC-1600 BC) emperor Du Kang (杜康) one day put leftover rice in an empty mulberry tree trunk for preservation. But after several days, the rice fermented and began oozing a fragrant liquid. Bravely, Du Kang took a sip, liked it, and set about inventing a yeast fermentation method to make more of the same.

During the Shang (1600-1046) and Zhou (1046-771) dynasties, the Chinese grain wine home-brewing movement really began to take off, and by the Song Dynasty (960-1279), they had created new distillation processes to make liquor.

And the rest, as we know it, is history.

 

Split the bill or offer to pay it yourself? In China, etiquette extends beyond alcohol. Don’t risk causing offense, read our guide.

But things don’t always have to be so formal, why not try your hand at brewing your own beer at home?

 

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