by Derek Sandhaus
It’s rare that I receive a summons to brief senior diplomats. You see I’m a writer and what is referred to as a “trailing spouse” in the U.S. Foreign Service. So when my diplomat wife informed me that the Consul General and his deputy would like to meet with me, no one was more surprised than I.
When I learned what they had in mind it all made more sense: They wanted me to tell them how to drink, more specifically how to drink in the Chinese manner.
We were posted to Chengdu, the mist-shrouded capital of Sichuan Province. The city holds a special place in the Chinese imagination. It is beloved for its leafy, bamboo-lined parks and its fiendishly spicy cuisine. It is also the center of the world’s largest alcohol industry, which annually pumps out approximately 10 billion liters of a colorless but pungent grain liquor called baijiu. Though a mystery to most of the world’s drinkers, baijiu is served alongside food at nearly all major professional and social gatherings in China.
The Consul General was not a drinker. I knew this because I had discussed it with a junior officer who willingly served as his designated drinker, when protocol required. Yet the CG requested my advice to better understand both how baijiu is made and consumed—and he was right to do so. For if one is to conduct diplomacy effectively in Sichuan, let alone in China, one must understand the basics of Chinese drinking culture.
As early as 7,000 BCE, tribes in what is today central China began producing alcoholic beverages, long before peoples elsewhere. These prehistoric Chinese used alcohol in their religious ceremonies, toasting the gods and spirits to reassert their place in the cosmic hierarchy. As China developed into an elaborate secular bureaucracy, drink too came down to earth. Drinking wine was used to demonstrate respect and fealty, and a shared toast could reinforce an alliance or make friends of enemies.
Drink was not undertaken lightly. The ancient Chinese saw alcohol as a potent tool, a gift from the gods, and thus established rules to govern every aspect of its use. These customs instructed drinkers in everything from where to sit at the table to when to drink, and how deeply. Violations of drinking etiquette were once punishable by death, though today one is more likely to be punished with three shots of baijiu in quick succession. And from the beginning, an alcoholic transgression was seen as the worst kind of diplomatic faux pas: When an emissary of the Lu Kingdom presented a rival king with a gift of what was deemed to be middling wine, it set in motion a chain of events that resulted in two calamitous wars.
Over time alcohol became integral to China’s international dealings. In 1793 Britain sent Lord Macartney to negotiate trade concessions with the Qing Dynasty. Macartney failed spectacularly, but not before receiving Chinese libations from the emperor’s own table. Subsequent European missions received similar receptions, and always with a toast. In a darkly ironic twist, the First Opium War—which forced the desired European trade concessions at gunpoint—began when British sailors murdered a Chinese man in a baijiu-fueled barroom brawl.
Nixon’s Famous Toast
The symbolism of the toast remains an enduring constant. From Ulysses S. Grant to Barack Obama, every U.S. president who has visited the Middle Kingdom has clinked glasses with Chinese leaders. When the Chinese media reports on these meetings, they do so not with a picture of a handshake, as is our custom, but with an image of raised glasses. Perhaps the most famous drink in modern diplomatic history—the shot heard round the world—was that shared by president Richard Nixon and Chinese premier Zhou Enlai at the Great Hall of the People in 1972.
Prior to the Nixon’s arrival in Beijing, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Alexander Haig had wired the following warning: “UNDER NO REPEAT NO CIRCUMSTANCES, SHOULD THE PRESIDENT ACTUALLY DRINK FROM HIS GLASS IN RESPONSE TO BANQUET TOASTS.” This was well-considered advice, which balanced diplomatic niceties against the risk of unleashing Moutai, a potent sorghum spirit, on a president famous for his hot temper and low tolerance. Thankfully for history, the president ignored the warning and put the Cold War adversaries on track for normalized diplomatic relations in a matter of years. As Secretary of State Henry Kissinger later remarked to then-Chinese Communist Party Chairman Deng Xiaoping, “I think if we drink enough Moutai we can solve anything.”
It must be noted as an aside that this episode, as with earlier Chinese liquid diplomacy, contained a kernel of menace. During the banquet Zhou Enlai had delighted Nixon by demonstrating that baijiu contained so much alcohol that one could pour a measure into a bowl and light it ablaze. Nixon returned to Washington with a case of Moutai and attempted to recreate the effect for his daughter in a tea saucer, failing to predict that the heat would shatter the porcelain and ignite the table. If not for a fast-acting Secret Service agent, baijiu might have prematurely cost Nixon the White House.
Though the stakes are rarely so high, until quite recently virtually all negotiations in China were conducted within the context of the freewheeling baijiu banquet. By 2011 this situation had grown so pronounced that the Chinese newspaper Global Times reported an annual government food and beverage expenditure approaching US$100 billion, more than that year’s stated defense budget. The situation sat so poorly with the public that when president Xi Jinping assumed office in 2013 he severely restricted governmental purchase of alcohol.
Statecraft in China is now a more sober affair, but diplomats should nonetheless understand basic Chinese drinking etiquette. Baijiu still greases the gears of business and it can reliably be encountered in most holiday celebrations and social situations. And in order to minimize embarrassment or, better still, impress one’s hosts, it is essential to know how to comport oneself when drinking.
Rules to Drink By
What follows are a few pointers gleaned from several hundred hours behind, and at times underneath, the Chinese drinking table. There are elaborate explanations behind all of these rules, most grounded in Confucianism, myth and folk religion, but for simplicity’s sake let’s leave that for another day. Most diplomats are well practiced in following protocol.
Where to sit. Chinese banquet tables are typically round, which often prompts outsiders to mistakenly assume an egalitarian arrangement. In fact, the seat with the best line-of-sight to the door is the “head” of the table, reserved for the host or honored guest. If not directed to a specific seat, take a humbler position with your back to the door.
How to pour. At most banquets, several carafes filled with baijiu are spaced strategically throughout the table. When confronted with empty glasses, fill your neighbors’ cup to the brim and allow them to return the favor. Show your thanks by a quick double-tap of the table with your middle and index finger, a symbolic kowtow and gesture of humility. You follow the same procedure with tea, but never fill a tea cup more than halfway, lest it go cold and create the impression you would like your neighbor to leave.
How to toast. Your host will initiate the drinking by making one or more communal toasts to the table. Rise from your seat, lift your glass, and say “Ganbei!” (literally, “Dry the glass!”) before downing the contents in one swig. Present the empty glass to your drinking companions to demonstrate that you did, in fact, finish. Once the group toasts conclude, the individual toasting commences and things start getting livelier.
To initiate a toast, approach your intended recipient, raise your glass, and make a heartfelt declaration of your hopes for his or her good health, happiness, and success. Maintain eye contact and clink glasses before drinking. You should attempt to honor the other by undercutting the lip of their glass with your own, but the toastee will attempt to do the same to your glass, often resulting in a literal race to the floor.
A word of caution: Politeness requires that all delivered toasts must be reciprocated before the meal’s end. This means that if you make ten toasts, expect ten in return.
And Rules to Avoid Drinking
By this point in the instructions, less adventuresome readers have no doubt grown concerned for their well-being. Fear not, there are loopholes, which brings us to perhaps the most necessary advice of all: How to receive and/or subvert a toast.
The most important decision you’ll make when the bottle of baijiu appears is whether to drink at all. If you politely decline to drink at the meal’s start, you are usually off the proverbial hook. Feigned illness or the need to drive later are both valid and widely accepted excuses. As an outsider, your hosts are unlikely to press you to drink. This is especially true if you are a woman (one of sexism’s rare perks). But if you partake in the first toast, you have tacitly agreed to all that follow. And that same alien status that would have saved you moments earlier has now made you an attractive target for prospective toasters.
So how does one manage?
The sneaky drinker uses subterfuge. Ambassador Jon Huntsman abstained from alcohol on religious grounds, but it has been reported that he so badly wished to avoid offense that he would join his hosts for the first shot before switching to water. Baijiu is a clear spirit, so alternating baijiu and water is a viable strategy if you enlist an ally to fill your glass. Another popular tactic involves holding baijiu in your mouth following the toast and surreptitiously spitting it into your tea cup while pretending to chase the drink.
The enterprising drinker delegates. The Chinese place great emphasis on toasting, but local custom curiously dictates that the toast simply be received, not that it reach its intended target. Many large companies and high-ranking executives employ a mercenary drinker whose sole job is to drink the toasts intended for others. Hence the example of our Consul General and the junior officer cum volunteer stunt drinker.
There’s also acceptance. You can simply hunker down, eat plenty of food, and try to stay hydrated. Pace yourself, but also don’t be afraid to lose yourself despite your best diplomatic intentions. The goal of well-ordered baijiu banquets is to achieve a state known affectionately as renao—hot and loud—in which the night descends into jovial hilarity, as conversation, spice and alcohol beautifully intermingle.
I can think of no better way to encounter China at its least guarded and most joyful.
And if you can, learn a little about baijiu while you live there. This whole ritual will become more pleasant, or at least less objectionable, if you can develop a taste for China’s diverse array of local spirits. You will be offered baijiu at every turn, so why not try to identify which ones you actually enjoy?
It’s said in China that the sober never find friendship. While I can’t fully endorse the sentiment—you can easily encounter China’s richness without the aid of an intoxicant—I offer the following permutation: If one drinks with friends in China, drink with Chinese friends.
Just try not to start any fires.
Derek Sandhaus has published five books on Chinese history and culture, most recently Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World’s Oldest Drinking Culture. In 2018 Sandhaus co-founded Ming River Sichuan Baijiu in partnership with China’s oldest continually operational distillery. He lives with his wife and dog in Jerusalem, where he is developing a fondness for arak.