Drinking Culture in China

The two weeks leading up to Chinese New Year are marked by excessive feasting and drinking between colleagues and friends in China. It is an important social duty that puts one’s drinking ability into serious test. I was at such a dinner recently where a friend was barely holding his liquor, but insisted on drinking until he collapsed. He even proudly announced that his body can collapse, but his dignity can’t. This is the essence of China’s drinking culture.

Destructive drinking isn’t really a college thing here as it is an indispensable social ritual among mature, grown up men. They drink not for the thrill of getting wasted, but to show that they are trustworthy and upright. Yes, drinking excessively is a respectable quality here. We have this word 酒品/jiu3pin3, which combines the word for alcohol/酒/jiu3 and the word for personal integrity/人品/ren2pin3. The result is a concept which glorifies drinking and associates it with one’s dignity.

Business dinners in China are the most prominent display of our die-hard drinking culture. Even if you can’t drink, you need to drink to give your business partner face and respect, and also to show him that you are honest and trustworthy by putting your life on the line and drinking more than you are capable of. It’s not uncommon to find people whose entire career is built on their ability to drink. But of course not everyone in China abides by the same rule. The drinking culture in Shanghai for example is a lot more moderate. But that’s also why people from Shanghai are often the subject of ridicule at dinner tables.

20 thoughts on “Drinking Culture in China

  1. What I find surprising is that young Chinese (at least the 21 year-olds I know) drink really weak drinks and get drunk really easily. Did the 40-somethings of today drink just as much when they were 20-somethings?

  2. I have heard that most Chinese women drink very little if at all. How does this culture of drinking affect women’s ability to be successful in business? Are business women obliged to drink as much as the men?

  3. I am a foreigner living in China. Even though I like a lot of things about China, the drinking culture is one thing I dislike, as it’s excessive and unhealthy. Even though I can drink, I will usually say that I can’t drink bai jiu at dinners, and that in my country we are more used to drinking beer, so I will be given beer instead. It’s much less strong, and easier to handle. Sometimes I will even refuse to drink all together. I refuse to be drawn into this unhealthy and silly game of who can drink most.

  4. Thanks Jenny, I didn’t know about jiupin and renpin. I just spent the holiday at my girls home in the country side again, last year I was able to escape getting wasted but this year I had to show some new family members I was a part of the family. I paid for it last night though, and grandma was telling me I don’t need to drink.

  5. @Alec,
    Age definitely plays a role. Drinking is an important networking tool in China to the point of one has to drink to bond with colleagues and clients. So as young people start to work, they are exposed to more drinking or in some ways forced to do so. My dad couldn’t drink at all when he was young, but that changed when he started working and drinking was almost a professional requirement. I think it’s even fair to say that a man who doesn’t drink doesn’t have an extensive network in China. I also think that regional difference counts for quite a lot in people’s drinking habits. Young people in their 20′s drink considerably less in Shanghai than their counter-parts in Beijing or Dongbei (the Northeast region of China).

  6. @Jane and Frances,
    The social expectation for women to drink is a lot less. Although women will sometimes be made (or even teased) to drink a bit, it’s much less of an obligation than it is for men.

  7. @Carl,
    My Canadian husband went through the same learning curve. A few of my uncles are still adamant about making him like Baijiu.

  8. @Nathan,
    我的身体可以倒下,但我的酒品不能倒。/Wo3 de shen1ti3 ke3yi dao3xia, dan4 wo3 de jiu3pin3 bu4neng2 dao3.

  9. @Gabriel,
    I concur with you. Although sometimes drinking is done in good spirit, I think it’s often quite juvenile.

  10. What happens to around half of chinese people who have the Asian flush? Are they considered to be less manly and respected to the point where they can’t do business?

  11. This post remind me that few years ago I was working for a Swedish owned company. Once we went to Northeast of China for business trip. My Swedish boss told me “You know, when we are in northeast, we work one day sleep two days.” I didn’t get it at the beginning until later we at the dinner with local business partners.

  12. I got drunk on bai jiu at lunch yesterday (the most I had ever drunk – 4 glasses), but didn’t want to. Its hard for me to say “I won’t drink today” because 1.) I have to spend 10 minutes arguing that I realy don’t want to or can’t and 2.) when they want to “cheers” with me, I feel guilty that they are drinking and I’m not. But, when I start drinking, its really hard to stop, because I’m already a little drunk and I’m therefore not in good judgement. Yesterday, I was only drinking it to impress my parents and their goverment cronies, and I got a little carried away with them. This happens a lot, and I always regret it the next day. I want to take care of my body, especially my brain and liver in this case. Jenny, do you have any advice about how to handle this situation? I might just have to “stick to my guns” and not drink at all, but it will be difficult, and I know I’ll let some of my father-in-law’s buddy’s down.

  13. when I say 4 glasses, I mean those clear glass tea pot looking glasses, not those little shot glasses. BTW, this isn’t something I’m proud of. I feel like I’m talking to an AA (alcohol anonymous) group!

  14. @Jane and Frances,
    The social expectation for women to drink is a lot less. Although women will sometimes be made (or even teased) to drink a bit, it’s much less of an obligation than it is for men.

  15. It seems silly that anyone would insinuate that Chinese drinking culture is considered destructive, when Chinese drinking culture is based upon trust. If one can handle their liquor and also be trusted upon to speak intelligently and act appropriate it shows the strength of his character, and that outside substance can not influence who is he as a person. Thereby business dealings or even relationships are strengthened as a way of eliminating the “trust” and “understanding” roadblocks.

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