Knowing how to say cheers in Chinese and a few important rules of Chinese drinking etiquette are crucial for surviving a booze-heavy encounter in China whether for business, pleasure, or both. Fiery baijiu — the local spirit of choice — ranges between 40–60% alcohol by volume and often fuels business, banquets, and other social encounters.
The ability to empty a glass without flinching is often strongly tied to the concept of saving face. Good-natured drinking competitions between adjacent tables sometimes pop up after one party challenges another. You may find yourself running a cultural gauntlet of strong shots, toasts, drinking games, and possibly even karaoke! Know how to say hello in Chinese to greet new friends.
If you'll be attending a banquet with drinking sessions during or afterward, know a little about Chinese table manners before you go. Your performance during the food part of the session will win people at the table over.
How to Say Cheers in Chinese
The default toast in China is ganbei (sounds like: “gon bay”) which literally means "dry cup." And unlike in the West, you'll be expected to empty your cup after each toast given, or at least give it your best effort.
If you're lucky enough to hear a rare banbei during the session, be relieved: you can safely drink only half of your glass without chiding.
Is It OK Not to Drink?
If everyone else at the table is drinking, you'll most likely be put under tremendous pressure to participate — particularly in business settings. Unless you're a monk or pregnant, you'll be expected to give a concerted effort to match glass for glass with your hosts. An even more nightmarish scenario involves matching drink for drink with a company's elected drinking representatives. Yes, that's a thing!
If you choose not to decline, you'll need to make your intentions to abstain clear from the beginning. The choice in many scenarios is pretty much all in or nothing at all. Drinking sporadically — skipping a toast here and there — or drinking just a little is usually socially unacceptable.
Although you may get chided a little for not being able to keep up, good humor and getting a laugh from the group go a long way when drinking in China. Use humor to your advantage; it can be your superpower. The group will love that you can take a joke and laugh at yourself!
How to Get Out of Drinking in China
The Chinese often use little white lies on such occasions to save face; you can do the same. Some valid excuses you could give to avoid drinking altogether include health problems, instructions from a doctor, medications, or even religious reasons such as your own fabricated version of Lent. Women are often excused from drinking more easily than men but may participate as much as they wish. Regardless, those who don't drink will receive plenty of good-natured chiding.
With plenty of attention as a laowai (foreigner) and others possibly filling your glass between toasts, don't expect that you can simply knock back half-full shots for each ganbei. As guest of honor, you'll have smiling friends queuing to refill your glass for you.
Beer, Wine, or Baijiu?
One sneaky way to cut back on the amount of intake is to choose to drink beer instead of the much stronger baijiu. Your hosts may not mind what you are drinking, as long as you finish the glass with each ganbei. Just in case, try asking the server for a beer (the way to say "beer" in Chinese is pijiu; sounds like "pee-joo."
Tsingtao is a popular beer in China, and it's quite light. Red wine is also sometimes an option, but you'll have to get used to drinking it in gulping shots.
Chinese Drinking Games
Jovial drinking games often provide simple entertainment during heavy drinking sessions. A popular favorite is a number-of-fingers guessing game that has people shouting numbers at each other, then being punished for wrong guesses. No, the game isn't just random chance; a strategy is involved. Don't expect to win very often if you're learning for the first time!
Sometimes dice are used for Chinese games, but more often, all you need to play are fingers and a little trickery. The Chinese finger-counting system, often used for conveying prices and quantities, is a little different than our own.
Chinese Drinking Etiquette
- The most important consideration while drinking in formal settings is to "give face" to your hosts and others at the table. Never point out flaws or mistakes — even if there is food stuck to someone's face! Humility is an esteemed virtue; politely deflect compliments while offering many to others.
- The most senior host at a banquet will offer the first toast — accidentally stealing this opportunity from them is very bad form. Stand and raise your glass for formal toasts when others at the table do so.
- Do not drink alone; you should wait until a toast is given and then drink with the group.
- Refilling someone's glass for them is a polite gesture, and it will probably be reciprocated. If someone hasn't already offered, refill your glass immediately following a toast so that you'll be ready for the next.
- Guests and hosts will be sat according to status and seniority. Offer your toast to the people on either side of you and then clink glasses. After the initial round of toasts, people may move around the table to offer toasts to others.
- When toasting someone your senior or of higher status, hold your glass slightly lower than theirs to clink.
- Use your right hand to hold your glass when toasting and drinking. You can place your left hand under the glass to show greater respect while someone is giving a toast.
- If you need to hand someone something for any reason, do so with both hands. Use both hands to receive items.
- Tipping is not the norm in China! Your host will probably cover the check, so no need to leave a tip or offer to "chip in."
Conducting Business While Drinking
Many business relationships are forged in China with copious amounts of alcohol. Unfortunately, your ability to handle drink for drink with the group may affect business down the road. Companies may even bring along younger professionals or well-practiced drinkers along to serve as their elected drinking representatives.
Although you may hint or touch on business issues at the table, the drinking session is mostly to form a human bond for doing business later — perhaps even at the late-night karaoke joint. For obvious reasons, the drinking session is not the place to sign contracts or make critical decisions!