A Salute to Baijiu, Part 5: How to Look Like a Hero When There’s a Banquet

Few things in official Chinese life are more important than the banquet. If you’re involved in business in China, you should already have experienced this fact. Yes, the negotiations in the boardroom are important, but where you really make or break a deal is at the dinner table, specifically with baijiu. If you’re not in business, it really doesn’t matter because everything from simple teacher meetings to festival gatherings are cemented with booze. It’s tradition, and it extends back quite literally thousands of years. The poet Li Bai extolled the virtues of alcohol, and according to tradition he never wrote a poem without having at least one drink first. This is an interesting example because it points to an aspect of alcohol culture in China that doesn’t exist in the West. If, as Li Bai’s poetry expresses, alcohol is the gateway to the artistic voice, then it is also, in a more general way, the floodgate for all the creativity, emotion, and individuality that are otherwise pent-up. Chinese society produces some of the hardest-working people on the planet, but it also produces some of the most repressed and fearful. I’ve been going to official dinners, meetings, and conferences for years now, and in all of them there is one great, abiding law: authority speaks first, and typically there is no follow-up. If you want to get somewhere in Chinese society, you hold your tongue and do as you’re told, because no authority figure, from the elementary school teacher on up to the president, will abide being questioned. Sometimes we foreigners can get away with it, simply because we’re strange and foreign, but even we can get ourselves in trouble. There’s only time when that top-down authority structures gives way to something informal and intimate: at the dinner table.

There, with Li Bai’s spirit presiding, everyone agrees to let alcohol break down the barriers. There, a student can make a joke with a teacher, without waiting for the teacher to initiate. A simple office employee can loudly call for the CEO to sing them a song. Put simply, one of the only times in Chinese society you’re allowed to be truly “yourself” is when there’s alcohol involved. Because of that belief, there’s an implied intimacy and vulnerability at banquets that doesn’t exist in daily life. If you’re willing to drink hard with someone, then clearly you trust them because you’re allowing your real personality to come out; you’re letting the iron control you otherwise have on your emotions and responses break down. This is also why, although it’s certainly not going to get you fired, if you don’t drink at banquets, it’s not simply a matter of being impolite; it can also be, in the most traditional cases, insulting.

Here’s the funny thing about all this: I have yet to meet a Chinese person who enjoys getting hammered at banquets. Whenever there’s been a big dinner in the works, my Chinese friends have typically, during the afternoon leading up to it, said something like this: “I really don’t want to go to this dinner. I hate getting drunk.” But again, it isn’t a matter of enjoyment, but respect. Whenever I’ve answerd by saying, “Why don’t you just refuse to get drunk?”, I’ve been met with a self-conscious shrug and some version of this thought: “Oh well, you know, it’s our culture.” Which is true, of course. And because it’s cultural, we foreigners are presented with an interesting situation. It’s quite possible to play the “dumb foreigner” card to get out of drinking much (though that won’t work in high-stakes business or politics), but you can also, if you play your cards right, make such an impression on the Chinese people with you that they’ll think you’re a hero. And this blog post is designed to help you do that.

First of all, bear in mind that heroism is a matter of perspective, and the first essential criterion for heroism is an obstacle. Superman has kryptonite, Achilles has his heel, Odysseus has his pride, and without that obstacle, the hero is expected to be great all the time. A Chinese teacher or businessperson is expected to be able to drink lots of baijiu if they want to get ahead. There’s no possibility of an obstacle. With foreigners, though, we’re already starting out with a bad hand. We have no experience drinking baijiu, and so in most situations our Chinese hosts/friends/employers assume we’re rookies and don’t know what we’re doing. So the first tip I have is this: play up your rookie status. Whenever possible in your daily interactions with Chinese colleagues, express your fear of the mighty baijiu. Shake your head and wonder aloud how anyone can handle it. Make sure you also point out that you can’t drink much at all. Maybe one or two beers, and that’s it. This may or may not be true, but you have to appear to be, not only a complete novice, but also perhaps even one who is fearful of drinking.

Before the banquet, it would also be a good idea if you could play the “extra weakness” card. Having been slightly ill works best, and you can tell your Chinese colleagues this even if all you had during the weak is some mild diarrhea. After all, they’re not going to make you give them a detailed account of your symptoms. Another great excuses is kids. Every Chinese person understands how important family is, and if you’ve got even one kid at home you can say this, before a banquet, “Oh, I guess I can go, but I’m awfully tired this week. My son/daughter has been keeping me up.” Then, when the banquet rolls around, you have the chance to have an even bigger obstacle by saying, “You know, I probably can’t stay long. I have to get home to help my wife with our son/daughter.” Play those cards, and it will look like you’re facing down overwhelming domestic need just to drink with your colleagues.

The extra weakness card also works even if you’ve got no kids. Maybe you’ve got too much work, or maybe your parents are going to call from abroad, or maybe you have to prepare something for an official meeting. Whatever. Make sure you are, or appear, insanely busy in the days or weeks before the banquet. Make sure you also say, with great regret, “I need to leave by 8 or so if I’m going to get everything done.” Then, at the banquet, when 8:00 rolls around, look at your watch and say, “Oh no, it’s 8:00!” Then glance around the table, smile, and say, “I suppose I can stay for a few more drinks.” Your stake will go up quite a few points here. If you’re a family man/woman and you want your stake to skyrocket, get your mate to call you at a pre-appointed time, then come back to the table and say, “That was my husband/wife. I told them I need to stay longer with all of you.” Then immediately toast the table. They’ll think you’re incredible.

The fun thing about this aspect of Chinese culture is that even when/if your Chinese colleagues suspect you’re toying with them, they’ll still respect you for it. Most Chinese people I’ve met have a lot of respect for people who are clever and can get around things while still making everyone else look good. Figuring out a clever way to not get hammered, for example, usually includes making it look like you’re drinking a lot, and this means the people around you look good, too. It also shows that you understand the culture far better than people give you credit for, and that counts for a lot in China. If you know enough about the importance of Chinese drinking culture to arrange for a fake phone call from your wife, I guarantee your colleagues will love you.


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