There’s a popular adage that suggests, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” This is sound advice in all walks of life, and it also applies to when in Beijing – or indeed, any territory in China. Tradition and custom are hugely important to the citizens of this country, and a huge part of Chinese culture is the consumption of baijiu.
Baijiu is something of a mystery to many western individuals. Pound-for-pound it’s the most popular alcoholic beverage in the world, but it’s rarely consumed outside of its native country. Baijiu is not just another drink, however. While most nations will offer a wide selection of different choices in bars and residential drinks cabinets, many Chinese establishments will operate a baijiu-or-bust policy.
This can be a little problematic for a novice, as baijiu is not a beverage for the weak of heart. The drink has the informal nickname of ‘firewater’, largely due to its high alcohol content. The palate of a typical Chinese national has long since adapted to the strong flavours of baijiu though, and most have learned to love the burning aftertaste. In China, baijiu is not simply an option alongside beer, vodka, whiskey or wine. It’s an essential element of the nation’s DNA, consumed by the common working man and royalty alike.
It’s the connection between baijiu and business that we would like to discuss here. Anybody that hopes to trade in China should learn to love baijiu – or, at the very least, tolerate it with a smile. If you complete a deal in the west, you will likely be expected to pop the cork on a bottle of champagne to celebrate an agreement being forged. Baijiu could be considered the champagne of China. It has been used as a celebratory drink since the 16th Century, when the soldiers would share a bottle to mark victory in battle (Baijiu History). Baijiu has been consumed at wedding ceremonies for a similar period, cementing the bond of two families becoming one. If you have any business or personal ventures connected to China, expect the baijiu to flow.
It is possible to avoid encountering baijiu, in the sense that anything is possible. If you are teetotal for health or personal reasons, or you simply cannot stomach the potent liquid, some Chinese nationals will understand. You may be excused, and be permitted to toast a landmark occasion with something more your speed, such as water or beer.
As the old saying goes, however, just because you can it doesn’t mean that you should. Refusal to consume baijiu may seriously impact upon you relationship with a Chinese national, even if they do not make this clear at the time. The drink is hugely important in China, and you may cause inadvertent offense by declining to take a single shot to celebrate a landmark moment.
This is especially likely if your host has purchased baijiu especially for the occasion. Like fine wines and spirits in the west, baijiu can very expensive in China if it has aged appropriately. Even the most polite refusal could be misinterpreted as a snub if not handled very carefully in advance. Refusing to take a drink after you have been toasted is also a big no-no in Chinese culture.
Just why is baijiu so important to the Chinese, though? Let’s take a look at four pivotal reasons.
You are Demonstrating Respect for Each Other
A little respect goes a very long way in China. If you are prepared to accept a shot of baijiu, you are proving to your potential business partners or family members that you value their traditions. This will, in turn, make a Chinese business associate far more comfortable trading with you. Ultimately, you are showing that you are prepared to be, “one of the team.”
Worried that continuing to drink baijiu will leave you a little worse for wear? Don’t be. In China, refusing an offer of the drink is considered a considerably larger social faux pas than becoming intoxicated as a result of it, and may even be dubbed hugely disrespectful. In fact…
You are Showing a High Alcohol Tolerance
You have to remember that many Chinese nationals, especially those outside of the high-flying corporate world, have limited experience in dealing with westerners. As a result, they may start out suspicious of your intentions. This suspicion can be overcome by sharing substantial quantities of baijiu.
Ultimately, when you eat and drink with Chinese nationals, they are sizing you up. This is why the drinking may begin before any talk of business. If you hear your prospective partners use the term, “da jiu liang”, keep up the good work. This essentially means that you can hold your liquor, and can be considered part of their team. Declining more baijiu on the grounds that you don’t want a hangover, or to feel queasy, may be misinterpreted as snootiness or lack of humility.
You are Proving That You are Prepared to Compromise
Naturally, this high drinking tolerance may come at a price. We don’t mean the bar tab – we mean the pounding head that you may be suffering in the morning! This is a sacrifice worth making, as a Chinese national will treat your willingness to compromise your taste buds and body as a huge mark of respect.
It’s understandable, really. Anybody looking to do business wants to know that the other party will be flexible. Taking a drink of baijiu, regardless of the impact that it may have upon you, shows your business associates or family members that you are prepared to bend over backwards to show respect and meet their needs. This is a great footing for any ongoing relationship!
You are Taking an Interest in Chinese Culture
Baijiu isn’t the name of a single drink in China, any more than wine or beer is in the west. There are countless variations of baijiu (Baijiu Brands), with different aromas, alcohol content and manufacturing processes (How is baijiu made?). Every territory in China has their own preference of baijiu, and your hosts will be delighted if you show respect by doing a little research before you meet them.
Discover the bestselling baijiu in the territory that you are visiting, and look into the aroma and ingredients (Baijiu Ingredients) used to create it. If you’re really looking to impress, dust off some popular Chinese-language phrases that often accompany baijiu.
If you’re feeling daring you could say, “Wǒ gànle, nǐ suíyì,” which essentially translates as, “drink at whatever pace suits you, but I plan to finish this glass.” You could also appeal to any high spirited company by announcing, “bu zui bu hui!, aka, “nobody leaves until we are drunk!”
It’s not just whether you drink baijiu that matters, though. How you do so is equally important.
It’s essential that, upon receiving your shot, you stand up straight and look your host directly in the eye. Hold your baijiu as low as possible, as this denotes respect and humility. Just be aware that this may feel like a competition, as your drinking partners may constantly seek to reach lower than you. Being humble is a hugely important part of China’s culture of respect! When you’re ready, announce, “gan bei!” as a toast (which translates as, “empty the cup”) and consume your baijiu in one fluid motion. By saying this, you will be expected to finish your drink in one. Don’t disappoint your company by failing to do so!
This may burn. It may hurt. It may leave you feeling very light-headed. Just smile through this, however, and you will delight your new Chinese friends. Remember, baijiu is not just a party beverage for bingeing. Your hosts are not force-feeding you potent alcohol in an attempt at getting you drunk and lowering your inhibitions (though if this is a natural side effect, just go with it!) Instead, they are evaluating you as a potential partner.
By drinking baijiu, you are simply showing respect and understanding of Chinese culture and customs. By refusing baijiu, especially if you have been toasted, is a huge mark of disrespect. Understanding this, and acting accordingly, will go a long way to ingratiating you with your hosts and business partners. It may feel like one too many in the moment, but it could make all the difference between sealing a lucrative contract or returning home empty-handed.