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January 31, 2011

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Ganbei culture: Drink, drink, drink

THE Chinese Lunar New Year is the season of excess, and while the focus is usually on fabulous food and the mandate to eat, the drinking culture requires guys to drink, drink, drink. Zhang Qian goes bottoms up.

For thousands of years in China, wine has been used in rituals to worship gods and pay respects to ancestors.

Today China's drinking culture is pervasive and although the link with sacrifice and worship has weakened, drinking remains a powerful sign of respect, fellowship and friendship, the ultimate social lubricant and bonding tool.

Drinking is a major social ritual among grown men, and it's considered very impolite and disrespectful to turn down a drink, and even insulting and a loss of face for the host.

It is believed by those fond of drinking that the more one drinks, the more respect one shows.

This mentality is difficult for some foreigners to grasp, even those who like to drink. Most don't like to be pushed, especially when they have had enough.

James Morris, an American freelancer in Shanghai, occasionally works as a TV presenter of a tourism program.

When making a program in Heilongjiang Province in northeastern China, he was forced to drink continuously at a welcome dinner by the local government. He refused after several rounds.

"I told them I had already drunk a lot to show my gratitude. We don't drink this way in the US, but they said we had to do it the Chinese way," recalls Morris.

Physically uncomfortable and unwilling to continue, he left the table in anger.

Many foreigners are not pushed too hard but it's different for Chinese,

Most Chinese people believe that jiu pin (literally "alcohol integrity") to some extent reflects ren pin (personal integrity). The pressure is far greater on men than women (they get their share of pressure), far greater in business than in family gatherings, and far greater in northern China than in the south, including Shanghai, whose men are the butt of jokes about not holding their liquor.

And the 15-day Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations are filled with eating and drinking - to excess. "Ganbei!" (Bottoms up!) is heard everywhere.

Rather than turn down a drink, many men drink until they get sick and even pass out.

Adam Hu, a 29-year-old bank employee and moderate drinker, has already survived several banquets with colleagues and partners in recent weeks and he is prepared for more.

"Drinking is always part of the gathering, especially on special occasions like New Year's," he says. "Without it, something is missing. And one or two cups hitting the stomach makes us feel like brothers again, even if we haven't met for months."

According to Tian Zhaoyuan, professor of anthropology and folklore at East China Normal University, the invention of wine has added color, passion and magic to life. It doesn't relieve hunger or thirst, but only works on the spirit to lift it (at first).

"To some extent, people drink to seek a temporary break from boring and stereotyped daily life," says Tian.

By tradition, Chinese people drink calamus wine on the Dragon Boat Festival (usually in June); chrysanthemum wine on Double Ninth Festival (usually in October); and alcohol is never absent for New Year's festivities.

"Wine was widely used in rituals for worshiping gods and ancestors and the liquid contains respect and gratitude," says Tian, "and the meaning has passed through generations."


However, the association between alcohol and respect puts many people to the test today. They have to keep drinking for the sake of manners and dignity in public, though they are falling down.

Family members are more understanding but in a business situation there is often no mercy.

"You have to drink, and I don't have a problem with it," says Bob Chen (not his real name), who is in sales. "My record is throwing up three times in one night because a client insisted on drinking baijiu (distilled spirit)."

"If a client wants to continue drinking, you can lose a deal if you don't go along," he says. "It's just not nice not to drink."

He laughingly recalls that a client promised to increase his sales order if he drank a tumbler of whisky. He did and he got the deal.

"All the work-drinking gives me an excuse for my wife when I go home drunk. And now during the holiday I can get splattered on my own terms," he adds.

There's a lot of etiquette associated with toasting and drinking. Drinking at least one glass of wine with at least every other person at a table is considered basic during a dinner. Drinking rules are tougher in north China where men are more macho.

There are quite a few publicized cases of people dying of alcohol poisoning, notably officials doing too much banqueting. Last year a police officer in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, died on an off-duty night of heavy drinking.

"It's quite difficult to have dinner with customers in north China," says John Lin, who owns a small trading business. "They always have different reasons that you cannot stop."

Gerard O. Panga, a tourism attache with the Philippine Consulate General in Shanghai, has been drinking a lot for the past three years as part of his job.

"Actually, alcohol itself isn't that important for Chinese people. What matters is being together and getting close emotionally," Panga says. "They don't care what kind of alcohol it is or how much it costs, they just love bottoms up with friends."

If he feels sick, he pretends to be staggering drunk already or finds a scapegoat - pointing to someone who hasn't been drinking much and then everyone makes that guy a target.

It's easier for women, says Chloe Reuters, who works in public relations for a foreign company, adding that she is usually let off the hook when she politely says she cannot handle any more.

Drinking rules

? There should always be a toast before each drink.

? Do not toast before the boss or host.

? It is allowed for several people to propose a toast to one person. But it is not polite for one person to propose a toast to several people, unless one is the host or boss.

? One who proposes a toast must drink more than the person toasted.

? When proposing a toast, one should raise the glass below the glass of the person toasted, unless one is the host or boss.


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