Drinking for Guanxi

If there’s an aspect of Chinese communal life that hasn’t been formalized into ritual, we’ve yet to find it. Even the apparent chaos of Chinese queuing springs from an ancient Shang Period decree, later cribbed by Aleister Crowley – “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law (in queues).”

Getting drunk in China certainly involves a degree of ritual. Now, your Chinese hosts are culturally programmed to tolerate your social ineptitude; it’s one of the more pleasant results of knowing that true cultivation begins and ends in the Middle Kingdom. However, their esteem for you rises in exponential proportion to the familiarity you display with Chinese customs. It springs from a respect issue reaching back to 1793, Lord McCartney and the Qianlong Emperor, all very Jungian.

Just know that the ability to get drunk in true Chinese fashion will advance your prospects faster than an ability to write ancient calligraphy. Of course, you don’t have to drink alcohol at that dinner banquet. Substituting with tea or soft drinks is perfectly acceptable, provided you’re wearing a purse. Otherwise, the universal ratio of character and capacity applies. With that understood, here are some tips, games, and toasts that will win you more guanxi than a fake MBA.


It’s the classic blunder of both the China newbie and the lowborn, taking the scrupulous politeness of Chinese associates as that befitting a large nose and the shadow it casts. Excessive courtesy is only extended because it is expected in return. Arrogance, especially to elders, will seal your doom faster than a rising sun tattoo. At a formal gathering, act exceedingly polite to everyone except the help. When four out of five Chinese faces are as red as the aforementioned rising sun, all bets are off. Here are some niceties to observe as you wait for capillaries to engorge.

  • – If engaging in a true “gan bei” (dry glass), show that your cup is empty; word is bond.
  • – When any guest pours you a drink, thank them with repeated tapping on the table of the first knuckles of the index and middle fingers.
  • – When clinking glasses in a toast, clink lower than any elders and those with a stake in being perceived as big shots. Eye contact is not as necessary as it is out west.
  • – Rather than that awkward goodbye “thanks a lot”, make at least one toast to whoever’s picking up the tab. A toast is also due anyone significantly decayed by time (65 and over, as a rule).


Which brings us to the subject of toasting. First and foremost, keep in mind there’s no need for the wit and wisdom an Irishman displays, albeit only after a drink or five. Chinese toasting is all about style over substance. Keep it enthusiastic but obvious, as follows:

– At a wedding reception

Yuan4 xin1lang2xin1niang2 yong3jie2tong2xin1, bai3nian2hao3he2, bai2tou2xie2lao3, mei3man3xing4fu2!

Let’s wish the bride and groom eternal togetherness, eternal love, eternal happiness, and lots of joy!

– At a formal banquet

Xian4zai4, wo3ti2yi4: Wei4 ge4wei4ling3dao3, ge4wei4lai2bin1 de shen1ti3jian4kang1, shi4ye4xing1wang4, wei4 peng2you3men de you3yi4, gan1bei1!

Please join me in a toast to the health and prosperity of our leaders and guests, and to our friendship. Bottoms up!

– At a business dinner

Rang4 wo3men gong4tong2ju3bei1, wei4 he2zuo4cheng2gong1, gan1bei1!

Let’s raise our cups to our successful cooperation. Bottoms up!

– At a New Year’s banquet

Zhu4fu2 da4jia1 xin1nian2kuai4le4, Xin1xiang3shi4cheng2, wan4shi4ru2yi4, he2jia1huan1le4, xing4fu2an1kang1, ming2tian1 geng4jia1mei3hao3!

Here’s to a happy new year, may every dream come true, may everything prove satisfactory, every family in harmony, enjoying a happy and steady life, and a better tomorrow!

– All purpose

Wei4 da4jia1 de shen1ti3jian4kang1, xing4fu2mei3man3, wei4 wo3men de you3yi4, gan1bei1!

To everyone’s health, happiness and satisfaction, and to our friendship; bottoms up!


Drinking games are among the few Chinese customs that have actually become less refined with time. Competitive drinking, or jiuling, dates back to the Western Zhou Dynasty (1100 BCE – 771 BCE). Believe it or not, the games were introduced to prevent getting soused and dishonoring the ancestors. Activities such as archery and Go required revelers to keep a relatively clear head in order to avoid disgrace. By the Warring States Period (476 BCE – 221 BCE), jiuling had evolved to include poetry recitals, riddling, and games of chance, with impromptu performances and mandatory drinking as stakes.

Today, jiuling is little more than the quickest route to Drunktown, games heavier on luck than strategy, that obviate the need to palaver about the weather or sports. For foreigners light on Mandarin, they are indispensible, turning nodding dinner acquaintances into crimson-faced blood brothers.

– Cai Quan (Guess Fist)

Two rivals extend anywhere from zero to all five fingers of one hand while simultaneously calling a number from zero to ten. Should one rival guess correctly, his opponent must drink. There are regional differences, but it doesn’t get much more complicated, unless it’s linguistically. Some call out “two kind brothers”, “three bright stars” or some patent variation on the number itself.

– Bangzi, Laohu, Gongji, Chong (Stick, Tiger, Rooster, Worm)

Rocks, Scissors, Paper with a fourth variable. Strike your opponent’s chopstick with yours three times, and on the third call out one of the above. Tiger eats rooster, rooster eats worm, worm eats stick (termite larvae?), and stick beats tiger (in the drunken imagination). Loser drinks.

– Shaizi (Dice)

A KTV staple, perfect for keeping those wannabe Andy Laus away from the mike. A fistful of dice and a cup are required; their telltale rattle in bars and KTV houses China-wide always mean serious drinking is underway. In its simplest version, shake the dice in the cup, slam the cup upside down on a flat surface, and guess the face value of a number of die, i.e. “three fives”, or “two fours”. If you’re right, your opponent drinks. If you end up scattering the dice all over the room, you drink whatever’s in both you and your opponent’s glasses

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9 Responses to Drinking for Guanxi

  1. Spectacular Vernacular says:

    The amount of things that I learn from your articles could fill a book…a leaflet, perhaps…but a piece of literature nonetheless. (That was a joke. Please don’t slam me too hard with your quick wit and terrifying command of vocabulary.) Today’s lesson learned: How to keep the Star Search contestants busy at a KTV bar. Thank you. Once again, thank you.

  2. Ernie says:

    A lack of games and a lot of serious networking (aka professional drinking) marked the event.

  3. Drunken Master says:

    Noted this was released just in time for the China Briefing Beijing Party event tonight ! http://www.china-briefing.com/news/2008/11/03/china-briefing-beijing-networking-event-tuesday-nov-4.html

    Schurely not on porpoise occifer…

  4. trevor says:

    hey, man, great article! only one suggestion/request: could you include the chinese characters (汉字) for your toasts?




  5. Ernie says:

    As soon as I can get Drupal to render Chinese characters instead of bizarre hieroglyphs, trevor. Studs Terkel never had to figure out php!

  6. London Invisalign dentist says:

    Nice article.Your learn a lot about Chinese drinking rituals. Thank you for sharing it. London Invisalign dentist

    Regards, Tim

  7. Anonymous says:

    Nice article.

  8. Ozymandias says:

    You left out the most important thing. How do you refuse insistent and repeated toasts wittily? (Or how do you verbally wrestle your opponent into draining his glass? — two sides of the one coin). There is definitely an element of sadism in the way some Chinese will deliberately browbeat other people into drinking. The words are clever, persistent, and hard to refute. The result is always invidious. Please, Ernie, give us tips on how to resist this wonderful “drinking culture” and avoid filling our bodies with unwanted poisons.

  9. Ernie says:

    Strong am I with the force. But not that strong.

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