Love it or hate it, the culture of toasting repeatedly over banquets is an art form that men should pay attentive care.
In Chinese, the term for a toast is 敬酒 (Jing jiu), and the way you propose a toast to somebody is by calling their name or title, followed by 我敬你（Wo jing ni). Other commonly known phrases include 干杯！(Gan bei) for ‘Bottoms up,’ or contrarily, 随意(Sui yi) to drink at leisure.
Women for the most part can consider themselves off the hook when it comes to informal occasions, as well as minors, and those with medical conditions or other mitigating factors.
Generally, I would advise against the driving excuse, unless you truly have to drive yourself somewhere long distance that very day. Subsitute drivers known as ‘Dai jia代驾’ congregate around restaurants and enterntainment complexes. For a distance related fee, they drive you home in your own vehicle, effectively neutralising your excuse into a feeble cop-out.
Subsitute drivers now wear uniform jackets with photocard IDs around their necks. They all cruise around on battery powered scooters that they fold up and place inside the boot of your car. Once you are back home, they take the scooter out and shoot off towards their next pick up point. On the roads, it’s not unusually to spot these scooters keeping pace at up to 60 kilometres an hour!
It’s not worth the risk to drink drive. Traffic police love setting up checkpoints on weekend nights, particularly on sidestreets around popular venues, and where there is little avenue for escape. Support officers often stand well in advance of checkpoints on the lookout for sneaky changes of driver, or attempts to u-turn.
Banquets laid on for foreign guests don’t generally follow the usual norms, so there is little scope for making the wrong impression, and participants may breathe easily.
The occasions where you should particularly take heed are business related occasions, often referred to as ‘Ying chou应酬,’ and banquets involving senior staff or leaders.
Weddings and major birthdays often entail lengthy sessions of merry alocohol abuse, but it’s usually permissible to excuse oneself from the worst excesses without causing offence.
Sometimes, you might feel under a lot of pressure from an informal host or friend to drink a lot, but this often stems from a strong eagerness to appear generous and hospitable, and you may decline without offense by a friendly but resolute shake of the hand and ‘Bu yong不用,’ repeated a few times for added affect.
Westerners often usually prefer to decline more gently out of politeness, but in China, people tend to perceive an absense of resolve as a desire to really agree in the end. Again, the result is further encouragement to accept an alcoholic drink out of eager hospitality, and nothing else.
Not all Chinese enjoy toasting at banquets. I know many who personally admit they often compelled to attend company banquets long after work when they’d much rather go home. However, this is an inescapable part of life for many, and it’s important for them to keep up appearances and play your part.
Choice of Beverage
Beer and red wine have certainly caught on in China, but the preferred offering for banquets is still rice wine, known as ‘Bai jiu白酒.’
In a way, I prefer going with the rice wine, as you drink less liquid, by emptying out a tiny cup or sipping from a large tumbler. Either way, I don’t find this spoils your appetite so much as downing entire glasses of beer or wine.
Though rice wine still makes me want to grimace each time, the taste does subside quickly, and in this instance, it’s worth repressing natural instinct and forcing a smile instead.
Rice wine is not to be confused with ‘Mi jiu米酒,’ despite the fact it actually translates as rice wine. Mijiu is more like a sweet mulled wine, with soft rice grains often floating around, but sometimes just as potent as baijiu itself.
You might hear baijiu directly translated as white wine, but white wine as westerners know it is 白葡萄酒 Bai pu tao jiu, or ‘White grape wine.’
I hope this clears up a potential source of confusion.
Rules of Thumb
As an overseas business visitor or resident spouse, it’s perfectly feasible to sidestep pitfalls by following these basic principals.
- Make sure to proactively toast all the participants individually in turn, rather than just passively waiting for others to toast you.
- You should toast in order of seniority, judged through a mixture of age and position of authority. It’s a good idea to toast the higher status individuals more times than your contemporaries, for whom once may be sufficient.
- Try to always use surnames with titles or familial relation when toasting senior staff or elders. Ask a contemporary discreetly beforehand if in any doubt. In Asian culture generally, given names are only ever used for close friends, and people younger or less senior than yourself.
- Before you drink, it’s important to first speak a few auspicious words of praise, good wishes or great expectations for the future, especially to seniors. As for contemporaries, a word of cheers, or wishes for plane sailing at work (工作顺利 gong zuo shun li) are usually enough.
- Clinking of glasses, either directly or by tapping on the table, normally means you are expected to drink the entire cup or glass. It’s a safe good rule to follow suit, but a casual gesture often means a sip is enough.
- It’s customary to show evidence you haven’t skimped by holding your glass up unobscured. Make sure you haven’t drank less than your toasting partner.
- Finally, you should pace yourself to avoid feeling too drunk and making yourself ill. Though this might seem difficult, it’s perfectly fine to tell others you can’t handle any more and take leave. As long as you have played your part, the host will understand, and actually take satisfaction from the fact you have had your fill.
Personally, I used to enjoy these occasions in my twenties, but ever since my return from Korea, my alcohol consumption has dropped to virtually zero. The best way to circumvent this problem is to avoid such gatherings as much as possible. This is part of the reason I prefer online freelancing and private consultation.
As for cheating, I’ll admit that during important family occasions where I can’t escape heavy alcohol consumption, I start tipping drinks discreetly under the table once the others are too tipsy to notice, on the basis that what they don’t know can’t hurt them. You’ll struggle to find many who admit to this, but the practice is certainly more widespread than you might expect.
Otherwise, remember that banqueting culture is as much an act as it is a display of sincerity. Should you ever need to partake in such occasions, just smile, play the part, and enjoy as much as you can.
I think I have covered the main points in this post, but please feel free to offer your comments and experiences if I’ve missed anything.
Do stay tuned, as I’ll cover the amusing topic of popular drinking games in the near future!