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The language of drink

By Zhu Beijing | China Daily | Updated: 2013-03-29 10:25
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In China, the amount of alcohol you drink is regarded as a barometer how deep your friendship with your host is. Sun Xu / for China Daily

Practical and tactical advice on dealing with the toasting minefield 如何成为八面玲珑的酒席达人

An old Chinese saying goes "A thousand cups of wine is not too much when best friends meet" (酒逢知己千杯少 jiǔ féng zhījǐ qiān bēi shǎo), which indicates the almost essential role alcohol plays in the social life of Chinese people. Drinking in many cultures can serve to develop, one way or another, friendships. In China, however, the amount of alcohol you drink is regarded as a barometer how deep your friendship with your host is. The more the guest drinks, the happier the host will be.

If a guest refuses to drink however, the host will feel embarrassed or will "lose face" (没面子 méi miànzi) for apparently being disrespected. At a formal banquet, such as a wedding or a company's annual dinner, the host will usually deliver a brief speech and conclude it with a "ganbei" (干杯, cheers or bottoms up) at which all guests must stand up and drink the entire contents of their glass.

To show his respect to the crowd, the host will usually turn his glass upside down after he drinks as a gesture to display that it is empty. He will also usually toast guests at each table, in turn. After the host has made his rounds, guests are obliged to toast the host in return (回敬 huí jìng). Guests sitting at the same table may also toast each other (互敬 hù jìng).

There are no fixed words for the toast but a simple rule of "serving different guests with different dishes" (看人下菜碟儿 kàn rén xià càidiér), or addressing different blessings to different people. For example, the host may wish an unmarried young woman an ideal husband as soon as possible (早日嫁得金龟婿 zǎorì jià dé jīn guī xù); elder people, good health and longevity (长命百岁 chángmángbǎisuì); and young people who plan to pursue studies abroad, a glorious future (前途无量 qiántú wúliàng).

Hierarchical order, or 辈分 (bèifèn), is an important factor to keep in mind while making toasts. It is generally accepted that at a formal dinner a person in a senior position, or an elder, can toast to a whole table. You can return the toast to that person but this should always be with other people of a similar age or position as it is impolite to do so on your own. Another table manner to keep in mind is that raising your cup too high may be rude - you shouldn't raise your glass higher than your elders while toasting.

In order to persuade people to drink more, you may hear some guests conjuring up all manner of reasons as to why they should. Persuading each other to drink (劝酒 quànjiǔ) is common practice to show hospitality and to celebrate friendship. An early and even elegant way of quanjiu is to be found in a farewell poem by the poet Wang Wei (王维, 701-761) to his friend who was being sent to the western border:

I plead you to drink up one more cup of wine;

You will see no more old friends beyond the Yang Pass.

Quàn jūn gèng jìn yī bēi jiǔ, xī chū Yángguān wú gùrén.


There are many versions of quanjiu. If you are lucky, you may encounter a considerate version like this:

I'll drink it up, but feel free to drink as much as you can.

Wó hē gān, ní suíyì.

我喝干, 你随意。

This means you will not offend people whether you drink the whole thing up or if you just wet your lips. There is one exception and it is for men: if the person proposing the toast is a woman and she drinks her glass dry, it is usually polite for you to down all of your drink as well.

Most quanjiu, however, are actually potential threats and require some skillful tactics to turn down. It customarily goes like this:

If you refuse to drink a toast, you can't be counted as a friend.

Ní bù gān zhè yī bēi, jiù bú suàn péngyǒu.


Drink it all in one gulp if we are great friends, and just sip it if we are on nodding terms.

Gánqíng shēn, yī kóu mēng; gánqíng qián, tiǎn yī tiǎn.


Both these are trapping you into the dilemma that if you don't drink it up, you are disrespecting the one who toasts. Just as the coercive language requires both resourcefulness and cunning, the art of declining a toast politely is equally difficult to master. You may tactfully refuse by saying:

I have a small capacity for liquor.

Wǒ jiǔliàng bùhǎo.


As long as we are friends, it doesn't matter what we drink.

Zhǐyào gánqíng yǒu, hē shá dōushì jiǔ.


During special occasions such as a wedding party, the bride and the groom are key target toasts. To avoid getting drunk, the couple will usually turn to the groomsman and the bridesmaid, who will drink on behalf of the couple. The unlucky couple will usually be quickly and deftly inebriated beyond their wildest imagination.

Finding a buddy for "shelter" from a toast (挡酒 dǎng jiǔ) is not always a given, especially at workplace banquets.

Fu Shanbin, a 30-year-old man who works at a domestic bank, recounts his experience at the dinner table of the bank's annual party: "My principle is to try my best not to drink, but sometimes it fails at the insistence of the supervisor. Anyway, it is obligatory to propose a toast to the supervisor, regardless of what he says. If I am caught cheating by substituting water for baijiu, I will receive immediate punishment by drinking a full cup."

While drinking together is believed to help establish or enhance friendship, some have doubted the sincerity of friendships made at the dinner table. Such sentiments are reflected in the saying: "No drinking pals can last" (酒肉朋友难长久 jiǔròu péngyǒu nán chángjiǔ); or Confucius' words that:

Virtue is sweet like wine, yet easily broken.

Jūnzí zhī jiāo dàn rú shǔ, xiǎorén zhī jiāo gān ruò lǐ.


Courtesy of The World of Chinese,

The World of Chinese

(China Daily 03/29/2013 page17)

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