Alcohol can lubricate dealmaking and consensus-building around the world, but it’s particularly powerful in China. Eighty-two percent of young Chinese say drinking is essential for career development, according to a 2013 China Youth Daily survey. Sometimes it’s part of the college curriculum (link in Chinese). Even some job interviews involve drinking.
Traditionally, business drinkers in China gather around the dinner table (which means the drinking doesn’t end until the meal is over) and everyone has to make at least one toast. First, the host may make a welcoming toast, followed by different interest groups “cross-toasting” throughout the meal. Individuals will likely stand up to make mini-speeches: a few sentences to express gratitude, to connect friends, to show anticipation for future deals. By the end of the event, at least a few attendees will be inevitably found reeling, or even vomiting.
Yet as China grows and changes, many young people are beginning to reject the intricate politics and etiquette of the professional drinking “game.” In the same China Youth Daily survey, 84% of people also noted that they hate being obliged to drink (link in Chinese). Rather than being forced to play along, this new generation wants to write rules of their own. They’re taking drinking culture from grandiose restaurants, to bars, casual salons, and their living rooms.
But changes don’t come overnight. There is another half of the world, mostly their parents’ generation, still “shedding blood” on the old roundtable. So if you ever find yourself in a setting where drinking is required, we’re here to help you navigate.
The rise and fall of business drinking
The tradition of drinking is as old as Chinese civilization itself, but it hasn’t always been so intense. Before people started pouring down burning baijiu (40%-60% alcohol by volume), drinking was an elegant and enjoyable activity. One traditional drinking game called 曲水流觞 (Qushui Liushang) involved politicians in ancient China floating a glass down a shallow creek. Whoever was sitting in front of where the glass grounded had to drink and write a poem.
The old-fashioned business drinking culture, which solidifies the idea of hierarchy, resembles the way Chinese drink on family dinners, where young people are expected to show respect and humility to their older relatives. But a new generation of Chinese adults values personal identity in consumption—and it doesn’t always have time for all those toasts at work.
“In the high-tech industry, real knowledge matters more than interpersonal skills,” says Xinran Xu, 24, an architect of Beijing-based tech startup Megvii. “Many investors ask me out for my insight into the industry, often in cafes or tea houses. I mean, how could they process all the complicated information if they’re tipsy?”
Qiushi Jin, 24, who runs an e-commerce startup in Hangzhou, a city in eastern China, always meets clients in cafes or at the office instead of at an alcohol-fueled dinner. “The speed of deal-making is faster than ever, especially for e-commerce. Every minute counts. Instead of wasting my time on drinking, I’d rather cut the crap and go straight to real business,” he says.
And this transition isn’t just among elite, well-educated tech entrepreneurs. “The era is gone when you could get business done with a silver tongue and a crazy capacity to drink,” says Xiyi Chen, 25, who imports fruits from Southeast Asia and Africa to China. “Now, you have to present ‘real stuff’. I’ve noticed that those who can only survive in the old-fashioned way are fleeing to countries like Vietnam, where people drink like the way Chinese used to.”
Taste matters more than respect
Though the custom is changing, Chinese people aren’t actually drinking less. In fact, the country’s per capita alcohol consumption is increasing (pdf). It’s what people drink, where they drink, and why they drink that is changing.
Young people born at the dusk of extended families and the dawn of a consumption-driven economy want to drink differently. While their parents may still splurge on expensive baijiu at business dinners to show off their wealth, globalized Chinese millennials prefer to drink a reasonably priced but exotic red wine in a candle-lit living room with their besties, because it shows their unique taste.
While traditional power drinking ebbs, leisure drinking is growing, which has resulted in skyrocketing sales in lower-alcohol mixed drinks like cocktails. According to China’s Alcoholic Drinks Industry Association, estimated sales of ready-to-drink cocktails in China rose to three billion yuan ($450 million) in 2014 (link in Chinese), three times the amount of 2013 and it’s expected to rise to 20 billion yuan ($3 billion) by 2020.
Wine sales—also less alcoholic than baijiu—are also increasing. China and Hong Kong now constitute the largest red wine market in the world, and thirst for knowledge about wine is growing. In 2015, more than 6,500 Chinese wine lovers applied to sit in exams and get qualifications on wine from Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), up 13% from the year before.
Drinking has become more about experiencing culture, cultivating friendship, relaxing, and having fun. “I love drinking with friends but I never drink on business occasions,” says Peter Song, 29, who runs a restaurant chain Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen in the United States. Song is from the northeast region of China where people drink the heaviest.
“My family runs restaurants and I grew up watching people fight because of drinking. Why? Disputes emerge when people don’t keep the promises they made while they are drunk, which happens a lot. But how can you take it seriously? My grandpa sold our family house when he was drunk. That’s the ultimate lesson for me.”
There will be more like Song in the future, but chances are you might still encounter people who’re clinging to the old “religion” of drinking. To make it through unscathed, it helps to know the unwritten rules of toasting and drinking in China—and use them to your advantage.
The unwritten rules of drinking in China
Know your place in the pecking order
There is always a certain order around the table: host over guests, seniors over juniors, the people who offer over those who ask—and the higher up you are in the hierarchy, the more you can force others to drink by toasting them. “It’s a manifestation of power: making other people drink shows your superiority,” says Xiyi Chen, a young businessman who grew up observing his politician father drink.
Think beyond the game
Yes, people in an “inferior” position are obliged to drink more, but that can give them negotiating power. “If you want to kiss someone’s ass, you somehow drink according to their wishes. But it’s not that simple. It’s a mutual game that allows both sides to play to their strengths,” says Farong Chen, a 50-year-old agricultural products businessman. Those who drink whenever toasted can end up walking away with a good deal or a promotion.
Prove your interpersonal skills
Toasting others is frequently considered a test of a person’s eloquence and charisma. “Not everyone who can drink is valued at work, but those who are valued are definitely good drinkers,” says Zhou Fang, 26, a politician who works for a Chinese state department. “It’s your opportunity to show your interpersonal skills: What to say to break the ice? What to say to connect different interest groups? Think of drinking as a microphone: What really makes you heard and remembered, is how you give a toast.”
Test your coworkers’ team spirit
Many Chinese believe there is a close link between a person’s drinking style, and the way he or she does business. “For example, your business partner can test your sincerity and courage by calling you out to drink to, or beyond your limits. It’s like an audition process,” says Farong Chen. A generous and ambitious drinker, therefore, may be seen as a generous and ambitious partner at work.
Loosen your tongue
“Everybody loosens up after a few drinks; strangers become friends—temporarily. It’s the perfect opportunity to dip your toe in the water and see if a deal is possible,” adds Xiyi Chen. Talk about business, but don’t make it sound like just business.
It’s OK to “cheat”—as long as you do it gracefully
Rest assured, there are lifesaving tricks for people who just can’t hold their liquor. Senior management, for example, can enlist a proxy drinker. “Younger staff are always proxy drinkers to help out the seniors,” says Zhou Fang. “Others get help from the restaurant. I heard that many politicians will limit business dinners to certain restaurants where the waitresses know them well and discreetly replace the alcohol in their glasses with water.”