How to survive a Chinese drinking frenzy

How to survive a Chinese drinking frenzy

Being the guest of honor at a Chinese banquet is like being a pinata at a Mexican birthday party. Here's how to (sort of) escape the punishment

If you thought shotgunning a beer in under five seconds back in uni was the pinnacle of drinking prowess, you’ve probably never been properly ganbei’d.

China’s version of “down the hatch” is a bit like the Power Hour, which involves repeated and prolonged shooting of small amounts of alcohol -- red wine if you’re lucky, baijiu if you’re not.

Though observed in all social circles, ganbei is particularly prominent in China’s formal banquet culture, where business suits and government officials rub elbows, talk business and get completely sloshed.

Shanghai-based food and wine critic Lawrence Lo and a few seasoned ganbei-ers, shared the secrets of this thoroughly intoxicating custom. 

Chinese drinking habits -- baijiu -- inlineIs the image tilted or have the rounds of ganbei gotten to you?

1. You’re in, or you’re out

While you’re not obliged to chug the night away, it is tacitly expected at a business banquet.

“There’s probably more pressure to drink than there is on your 21st birthday,” says a senior accountant who prefers the name Will Thomas. In his early 30s, Canadian Thomas attends regular company banquets with suppliers and other accountants in Shanghai.

If you are going to pass, “set your rule at the beginning,” advises Hong Kong-born Lawrence Lo, 39, who also runs LHY Etiquette Consultancy to gap the Chinese and Western drinking culture. “Because once you’re in, you’re in. There's no room for flip-flopping.”

The question is -- how to get out?

Make an excuse

All is fair in love and ganbei, and a white lie might save everyone's face. The best excuses are religious or health reasons, though be prepared for jovial ridicule.

What’s the best get-out-of-jail-free card? Pregnancy.

Either being on medication to get your wife pregnant, or, for women, being or trying to get pregnant (though be prepared for questions six months down the line), will do the trick.

Chinese drinking habits -- baijiu clubThe women at this Shanghai baijiu club can hold their own when ganbei'ing.

2. Women get a free pass

“One of the reasons I like China is that if you have the title and the position, you’re treated as an equal and get the same title respect,” says a British lady, who prefer to be addressed as Lucy Morgan. Morgan has lived and worked in China in both the government and private sectors for more than 30 years.

Ironically, while you’ll be invited to the banquets, you won’t be expected to drink. However, if you choose to partake, rule number one applies.

Props for the female ganbei

“Women get double points for ganbei’ing,” says Will Thomas.

Some men may offer to do a full ganbei while you do a quarter or half ganbei, but quite often you’ll be expected to keep pace with the crowd. For Morgan, it’s about proving that if you’re an equal, you’re an equal.

“I wasn’t going to be seen as the ‘little girlie’ back then or the ‘older woman’ now,” she says, referring to her experience 15 years ago when she out-ganbei’d the vice-mayor of Chengdu with 12 shots of baijiu.

Chinese drinking habits -- baijiu repWhoever draws the short straw gets to be the next ganbei rep.

3. Elect a representative

Believe it or not, “if you need to represent your company at a banquet, you can bring someone along and delegate them to drink for you,” says Lo.

Talk about authority.

In Morgan's experience, she has rarely seen a woman elect a drinking buddy (as women aren’t expected to drink anyway) -- it’s usually older or weak-livered businessmen.

If you go this route your fellow diners may jeer, but it does serve a purpose.

Saving company face

Joining in the inebriated merriment is in many ways viewed as a sign of goodwill and hospitality on the part of the company or organization you represent. In fact, this is often a sneaky way to get your best hitter up to the plate.

“The elected drinker is usually someone you do not want to drink with, because they can drink a lot," says Thomas. "They will probably deny that they can drink -- it's a lie.”

Chinese drinking habits -- baijiu -- ClintonWe're betting Bill opted for red wine over baijiu when going head-to-head with former Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

4. Pace yourself

It’s a long ride once you’re on the ganbei train.

“At a banquet, there are usually eight to 10 courses, and there will be a ganbei with each,” says Lo.

In addition, the host will usually toast the group and the guest of honor.

The second most senior host will toast the second most senior guest, and so on and so forth. It’s also not uncommon for challenges to strike up between tables.

So, how can you last the night without bringing the banquet back up?

Be sneaky

Over the course of 30 years, Morgan has picked up a trick or two. One way to lower the intensity is to downgrade your poison -- switch from baijiu to wine, or ganbei beer instead. Although the idea of shooting wine is less than palatable for many, it's the lesser of two evils.

While at informal occasions you can ganbei non-alcoholic beverages, Morgan says, it’s highly unusual at formal occasions. Beer is as non-alcoholic as it gets.

Another trick? “Pour a bit of water in your wine,” she suggests, “or switch to a half-ganbei -- banbei ganbei.”

And lastly, humor. “If you get people laughing, they won’t care how much you drink.”

Chinese drinking habits -- baijiu -- ktvFor karaoke sessions like this, leave your partner at home.

5. Don’t bring the spouse

Chinese banquets are primarily business affairs -- spouses are seldom invited to join.

“You should always check first [before bringing a spouse along],” advises Lo.

There are several reasons for this, the most compelling being that deals may not get closed over the course of the banquet.

The KTV close

“It’s still a very macho culture,” explains Lo. “Sometimes business is done [or concluded] away from the dinner table at KTVs or massage parlors."

The retreat to more “nefarious” locales, as Morgan jokes, or playing liar dice with pretty young girls selected for the occasion, is not a scene that spouses can readily partake in (and may disapprove of).

But, as Thomas points out: “It depends on who you’re with. Often you just go to a genuine karaoke -- and more drinking.”

Heading to formal Chinese banquet? Read on at "5 Chinese eating habits explained."