Dry Your Glass! Drinking Tips for Chinese Banquets

by Courtney Gould Miller
January 25, 2012

 

Ah, the minefields of the Chinese banquet.  Anyone who travels to China on business, to study, or to visit relatives will encounter it at some point.  (This post is particularly apropos as Chinese New Year was yesterday, when many toasts were undoubtedly made!)  New friends, new cuisine, new alcohol, and new etiquette.  It all comes with the territory and makes for an excellent night.  

Nervous?  Don’t be.  To help you enjoy the banquets, here are my answers to a few questions that might be on your mind.

  • “What do I say when I toast?  ‘Chin chin?'” Chinese toast with a rousing “Ganbei!” (pronounced “gone bay”).  It means, “to dry the glass.”  Which leads to the next question…
  • “How do I toast at a Chinese banquet?”  You dry your glass.  The host of the party will generally give the initial toast.  When a toast is suggested, a drink will be chosen to toast with.  Everyone will toast with the same drink as tradition.  Generally, it will be baijiu, (白酒), literally “white wine”, but it’s not made from grapes.  It is very, very strong Chinese wine made from rice or sorghum, and the alcohol content is often around 60%, sometimes higher.  It is served in very small cups, about 1/3 the size of a normal shot glass.  The cups will be filled with the clear liquor, and the toaster will offer a few words to the honored recipient.  Everyone will raise their glasses, and drink the cup.  You then show your neighbor your emptied glass just to confirm you, in fact, dried the glass.  Repeat at next toast suggestion.
  • “What if I want to toast someone?  How do I do it?”  Way to join the party!  This is a particularly good idea if you are the one that is treated to dinner, or if you are in business with a Chinese partner.  
    • First, decide if you want the entire room to toast with you, or if you prefer to make it more of a private affair.  In China, you can walk over to just the individual you wish to toast, say what you wish to say, and then toast just their glass.  For this kind of toast, the two toasting will both stand.  If the entire group is involved, not everyone necessarily need stand, only the toaster.
    • Second, choose your drink.  You can toast with anything, including tea, but whatever drink you choose, those toasting will need to drink as well. 
    • Next, say a few words.  Every Chinese banquet needs its share of flattery, so don’t be shy to complement your hosts and the toast recipient, if they aren’t the same.  You might want to note how much food there is, as over-ordering is a mark of hospitality.  
    • Finally, clink glasses with your toast recipient.  Whether you clink above or below the rim of the glass depends on who is the superior in the relationship.  If the recipient is older, a government official, your boss or client, be sure to move the rim of your glass below the rim of theirs as a sign of respect. 
  • “I’m thirsty!  How do I get another drink?”  Unlikely this will be a problem – more than likely it will be the opposite.  In China, you always refill your neighbors’ glass before your own, whether with tea or alcohol.  If you are running low, wait for the host of your table to pour for you.  If the alcohol is in your reach, offer it to your neighbors before pouring for yourself. 
  • “What if I don’t drink, or I’m a lightweight?”  Chinese understand if you prefer not to drink, particularly if you have a medical reason.  Similarly, don’t feel pressured to continue drinking if you are nearing your limit.  In fact, your hosts may continue to offer you alcohol after they reach their limit as a show of pride, or “face.”  (A cultural phenomenon to be explained in a coming post…)  Bow out gracefully by offering an alternative drink to toast with, or indicating you need to stop for the night.    

Comments

Thank you for your toasting tutorial! You give instructions beyond what I read in the guide Good Luck Life.

June 07, 2012 | Renee Marchol

Thanks Renee, I hope you've had a chance to use your skills! Let me know if there's something else you'd like to read about.

June 08, 2012 | Courtney Gould Miller
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