Three years ago while living in Chicago, I worked at a lot of events in a Michelin-starred restaurant. There I learned that no matter how amazing the food, the decor and service, without alcohol an event could rarely be called successful. And I guess this is true in China as well.
However, how people treat alcohol at social occasions — and especially toasting — can be quite different in the East and West.
Western people treat toasting more like a ceremony. No matter whether a big corporation event, a wedding, or a family meal, they toast before the meal. In the West, this is a part of a bigger celebration — or simply wishing bon appetit. And after the toasting’s done, it’s eat, drink and be merry.
But when it comes to China, toasting is a quite different thing. The two characters that form ganbei (干杯) literally means empty the glass. Back in ancient times, when someone received a glass of an alcoholic beverage from a king, it had to be downed it in one.
And today, guys knock back a drink in one to prove they are a true friend.
How about for girls? Well, we girls don’t do that most of the time.
Ganbei has a long and unique culture in China. People not only down in one a drink to prove their friendship; businessmen also do this when dining with guests to strike deals.
It’s normal to see a businessman holding a bottle of wine or baijiu — the fiery Chinese spirit made from sorghum — in one hand and a glass in another. Then he walks around the table and offers a ganbei to his guests, one at a time.
After he finishes, another member of the group gets to his feet, perhaps a little less steady than his predecessor, and repeats the same ritual. This meal is not about eating or talking. When everyone’s drunk — some may even have passed out — the deal is sealed.
Things can get out of control in a wedding. Not only will guests keep giving ganbei to each other, in the middle of the event, the bride and groom must ganbei each table.
At this moment, the happy couple might feel relieved if they only have 10 tables of guests. For those with 50 or 100 tables, it can be a daunting prospect, and doesn’t bode well for wedding night bliss.
Ganbei in China is more than just empty your glass. It has rules and each area has its own. Let’s talk about how people in east China’s Shandong Province — which is famous for its drinking culture — approach ganbei.
In restaurants, Chinese people like to hold important dinner events in a private room.
At that classic Chinese round table, the host will sit facing the door and takes a role known as zhupei. With the help of an assistant known as fupei, zhupei gives ganbei to guests.
In China, we like our glass full. Shandong people used to drink alcohol from a big bowl, though most have switched to glasses nowadays. This can be filled with about 166ml a time.
Shandong people prefer baijiu. Can you choose beer? Of course you can ... but there’s a catch — if you opt for the weaker brew you need to down six times as much than if you choose baijiu.
When the event begins, everyone must empty their glass in six slugs, during which the host makes a speech. If you drain your glass too quickly or too slowly ... it’s refilled as a forfeit!
In the first round, toasting is not allowed, otherwise you have to start again.
Then the second round is led by zhupei, and the rules are the same as the first round.
After that, it’s game time!
The zhupei and fupei figures will ganbei every guest. So you can imagine by the end of the event many guests will be worse for wear.
Even though Westerners may down shots, you can see that ganbei is still a unique Chinese tradition.
However, a unique thing is not always a good thing!
When ganbei looks like forcing people to over-indulge in alcohol, it can become a burden for guests.
We can enjoy wine, beer or baijiu at an event. And we like to toast as a celebration. But please, no ganbei.
Top tips for Chinese toasting etiquette
Who raises a toast?
While Western people are used to toasting together, Chinese usually toast individually in a specific order and way to express a particular meaning. A boss raises a toast first during business entertaining, followed by middle management and finally junior staff. The oldest person raises a toast first during a family dinner and then others in turn by descending age. Chinese will dine at a round table so that toasting is conducted clockwise to ensure fairness. And while many people can toast one person, one individual should not toast many others — unless, that is, they are the boss.
How much to drink?
There’s a Chinese saying: Be real friends, bottoms up; be fair weather friends, take a sip. Simply put — the more you drink the more sincere you are perceived to be. So prepare to be fired if you always drink less than your boss! To show respect in ganbei culture, there’s no saying better than “I’ll drain my glass, no matter how much you drink.”
Alcohol strength matters for toasting because getting drunk is regarded the highest expression of respect and sincerity. The stronger the alcohol you choose, the more mianzi — “face” — you give to others. A person appears friendlier if they down super-strong baijiu compared to someone who sticks to wine.