HOW TO: Drink Beer In China

Steven Schwab
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"With good friends, 1,000 glasses isn’t enough." – Chinese saying

It’s Friday night, and you’re sitting with your new Chinese buddies in the neighborhood restaurant. There are eight in your party, and the host has reserved a private room. After a few minutes of nibbling on peanuts and pickled veggies, several cases of beer are lugged in. The next thing you know, the suds are flowing, and people are offering up toasts left and right. But wait, how do you know what to do?

If you want to avoid some potentially embarrassing cross-cultural blunders, follow this guide to drinking beer in China—it just might save you a severe hangover, not to mention your pride.

Rule #1: Wait To Be Seated

In general, it’s a good idea not to just plop down at the table. Where you sit may have significance, so look for your host to point out a chair.

Rule #2: Neighbors First

When it comes time for the first round of toasts, don’t be afraid to get involved. Grab a bottle (usually liter-sized and poured into small juice glasses), and top off everyone else’s drinks first, even if it means not filling your own glass. Fortunately, your dining partners will do likewise and you won't be left hanging with an empty cup. New bottles will constantly be added to the table.

Rule #3: Toast the Host

In China, it is rare to "go Dutch" (to ask everyone to pay their share of the bill). Instead, one person will usually invite the guests, order most of the food, and pay. Since the host is the one coughing up the dough, it is only polite to offer them your first raised cup and a few kind words. As you stand up to offer your salute, maintain eye contact with the host and the other guests. Unless you feel inspired to get creative, you can simply state that you appreciate the invitation and are enjoying the good company.

Once I made the mistake of not toasting my boss before toasting my other coworkers. She had just toasted me, so I figured that I could share cheers with some of the other guests before drinking with her again. I was wrong—always toast the host first. In a joking manner she informed me of my "punishment" for neglecting the proper order: Whenever we drank together that evening, I was to down three glasses for each one she consumed. Ouch.

Rule #4: When Clinking, Lower Your Glass

When you clink glasses with another guest, acknowledge your status as a guest by placing your tumbler slightly lower than theirs. This will be seen as a sign of deference and respect. After the clink, stay standing until all parties have presented their cups.

Rule #5 – IMPORTANT! Learn the Two Types of Toasts

There are two types of toasts, and they require a different amount of drinking:

Gan bei: Literally meaning "dry glass," a call for gan bei means everyone should finish their beer. It is appropriate to make this toast on the first round of salutes, and is optional for the rest of the meal. Down your beer and invert the glass to show there is nothing left. Even if you don’t like to drink, you might want to slug down that first gan bei. Afterwards, you can get away with drinking smaller portions.

Sui yi: Translates as “up to you.” As the call suggests, sui yi can be as little as a sip or as much as the whole glass. These toasts are usually reserved for later rounds, when the alcohol has begun to kick in. A large meal can last for hours, so prepare for the long haul. There is no escaping the initial calls for ganbei, but no shame comes from slowing your pace afterwards.

During one of my earliest group dining experiences, I had not yet learned the tremendous value of sui yi, ignorantly opting to empty my beer on every call. My coworkers kept smiling and refilling my glass, obviously pleased that I was enjoying myself. As the evening neared an end, I was coaxed into a slurry yet emotive performance of the one Chinese song I could sing (a children's song about spring). In spite of my dubious performance, my wailings were received with generous applause.

Rule #6: Toast Everyone Else

After toasts of the host are complete, nice wishes should be offered, along with a glass of brew, to every other person in the group as the meal progresses. The other guests will toast you and everyone else in turn, so be prepared for plenty of cross-table exchanges. Again, standing until both drinks have been completed is in order. Those not drinking alcohol should still be treated to a quick tribute, and they will sip from their beverage in response.

Rule #7 - Have Fun!

Foreigners in China are not expected to know Chinese customs. So if you make a gaffe, no one will be upset; most people will gladly guide by example. Likewise, any attempts to follow along will be noted and appreciated. After all, having a beer is really about relaxing and sharing time with friends, and that's something that transcends culture.


Posted on 7/12/2009 by

Jason Wixom

Excellent post. Now I feel prepared to act more like a traveler and less like a tourist when I eventually make it to China.

Posted on 7/13/2009 by

Alba Ruiz

Alba Ruiz

Well-written and extremely useful post! I'll keep it in mind! :)

Posted on 7/13/2009 by

simon song

simon song

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Posted on 7/14/2009 by

simon song

simon song

It is true. Obviously, the author is a person of keen observation. I am looking forward to your writing.

Posted on 7/31/2009 by

Elizabeth Dilts

Elizabeth Dilts

I like #5 the best. Nice summation--but you forgot to mention all the beer will be served warm!

Posted on 8/20/2009 by

Chengyi Yu

Chengyi Yu

Excellent observations. Traditions and customs go a long way in China and the Chinese are appreciative when foreigners are aware of their culture. It might seem like a hassle but it's really just a sign of respect. Keep up the good work!

Posted on 8/20/2009 by

Steven Schwab

Steven Schwab

Thanks for the nice comments all! Elizabeth is correct: beers are served at room temperature by default. Cold beer is usually available on request, but most restaurants only keep a handful of bottles in the fridge. This is because many Chinese believe that drinking cold beverages is bad for the throat and stomach (as well as your yin/yang energy).

Posted on 10/01/2009 by

Cody Matsler

Cody Matsler

Isn't the person who proposes the toast supposed to empty the glass regardless? That is what we were taught while we were there. We learned about ganbei the hard way with baijiu instead of beer. That was a rough night.

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