The Art of 干杯
When I think of business travel, the images that come to my mind are airports, hotels, and the business class seats of flights that I am always super jealous of because I kick back in coach. Traveling internationally you need to consider many things - a different language, different culture, and a totally different business culture.
If you’ve ever spent time in China you will know the importance placed on drinking. Each province, and many times each township will have its own drinking customs. These practices might slowly go out of style because of a culture mandate implemented by the Chinese government, but they are still there for now. Each time I have come to China, my hosts have relished the look on my face when I try baijiu (translates to drink of death, and shaojiu, burning alcohol). No one is immune, U.S President Richard Nixon and his staff were all wasted for most of their trip to China.
Ganbei (dry cup) is Chinese cheers. This isn’t a normal cheers, sip, put drink down. Ganbei is a toast generally given to one person as a form of celebration, and congratulations. Like, congratulations on your new job! but done very formally. Then you are supposed to down it as a form of respect. Most Chinese dinners are filled with toasts, and its an art to nail down when you are supposed to toast someone.
How to toast
It is a sign of respect when you clink glasses to have your glass hit lower than the person you are toasting. Toasting can go long into the night and people might get into competitions. Think Chinese limbo.
Who toasts who
People will give you a toast to give you respect and to show their hospitality. Westerners aren’t “really” expected to know to toast back, or who to toast. I always play this card because, I can’t hold my alcohol. But, if you are daring and not 5'1 go for it. The other card I could play is being a women, we aren’t expected to drink as much, but we are still expected to drink.
When you toast
Stand, the outranking person sits. Its really an art. You are always expected to toast all the people who are higher ranking than you. Think of your dinner party like a pyramid. The highest ranking person is at the top, start with them and make your way down to the bottom. The way to I’m 21 and a guest. Basically, I’d outrank no one.
What you get out of drinking
In professional relationships you use smoking and drinking to close the interpersonal gap. It’s a way of getting to know who you are doing business with and create some guanxi, “chinese networking + relationships + cultural implications” — many books have been written on this.
People want to see your drunk persona, because it shows more about you than a standard meeting (der, of course). But, remember it’s business. People are reading you, and there are specific things they are reading. Don’t get too drunk; it shows you are easy to use. If you don’t get drunk you can’t be trusted, and if you pretend to get drunk you aren’t honest. Woah, what to do.
Location based drinking customs
There are also different drinking customs depending on the province or township. In Lanzhou, Gansu province, if you toast people, you drink for as many people your toasting. So if you toast six people, you take six shots.
In Dunhuang, which is a township in Gansu you toast - the ground, your parents and the sky. Whenever you enter your house, get out of a car, or really do anything.
In the townships close to Mongolia there is a custom where you toast with a bowl and a woman sings the toast to you and you have to keep drinking till the song is done. Some of the songs supposedly last up to an hour.
All in all drinking is much more important to Chinese business culture than it is western business culture. Drinking is one of the top ways to form bonds with officials and businessman, and it’s as ritual based as I would imagine a European court, or for that matter a Chinese court. My main advice: be like Nixon, watch and learn.