Quàn jiǔ (China)

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Quàn jiǔ
Location: China
China map.png
Author: Nan Zhao
Affiliation: School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London

Original text by Nan Zhao

In the Chinese tradition, quàn jiǔ (劝酒) is the practice of toasting during a banquet, using kind, praising and appreciative words to welcome guests. A typical practice in guanxi networks, quàn jiǔ is usually performed on formal occasions. It facilitates social interaction by acting as a conversation starter between both strangers and old acquaintances.

Quàn jiǔ is a well-established practice with a long tradition, that has clear rules which distinguish it from other simple drinking practices. It does not only revolve around alcohol as a social lubricant, but brings together forms of social and symbolic capital (Bourdieu 1986[1]), enabling the person invited to participate with prestige. Refusing to participate would be a form of irreverence, and would temporarily exclude the person from the sociability of the guanxi network. The etiquette of quàn jiǔ is an essential part of Chinese drinking culture, being taught in the family. Education involves teaching how to urge others to drink, what to say when toasting, and the appropriate techniques to make people drink more when attending official engagements (Sun: 2004).

The Chinese usually practice quàn jiǔ with bai jiu (白酒), a type of strong, transparent alcohol, saccharified and fermented from sorghum, wheat and rice. To a non-trained, Western person, bai jiu might seem similar to vodka. In fact, there are fundamental differences. Bai jiu is stronger (it is typically between 40-60 percent alcohol). A Chinese proverb metaphorically compares the two traditional liquors, saying that two shots of vodka are enough to see the devil, but a single shot of bai jiu is more than enough. While vodka is distilled from grain, bai jiu has a more complex manufacturing process, which makes it more ‘natural’ than the ‘chemical’ vodka. Bai jiu’s quality is essential; participants evaluate it according to various criteria ranging from strength, flavour, and ‘natural-ness’. Failing to meet the standards on any account reflects badly on the host.

Bai jiu helps people to release their emotions. Confucianism, with its fairly conservative and remissive culture inhibits open discussion and displays of feelings, compelling the Chinese to find alternative forms of emotional expression. In this context, bai jiu is not merely an alcoholic beverage, but a cultural and poetic lubricant that can release melancholy or trigger happiness. Li Bai, a well-known poet in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) said that, ‘releasing your melancholy through bai jiu may add more sadness to you.’ Conversely, an old Chinese saying supports the exact opposite view – ‘a thousand cups of bai jiu are not enough when bosom friends gather together.’

The process of quàn jiǔ is divided into several steps. After serving the cold appetisers, the hosts are expected to make a toast, following certain etiquette. Firstly, the hosts stand up; the guests follow their lead. Everyone raises their glass and keeps it at midair in front of their chest. Secondly, the host toasts the guest of honour followed by the other guests. The order of toasting is of great importance – it is in descending order according to the guests’ social status. The language of toasting involves praising that goes beyond the traditional western ‘thank you’. For example, ‘your presence makes my house resplendent and magnificent’ is a commonly used phrase. Historically, the language of toasting was even more elaborate. Over a century ago, Empress Dowager Tzu-His gave a banquet to celebrate her sixtieth birthday, serving royal alcohol to her ministers. In turn they toasted her, saying: ‘may your fortune be as boundless as the East Sea and may you live a long and happy life.’ (Chang: 2013[2])

After the toasting, diners are likely to start drinking challenges that require them to perform ganbei (‘drying the cup/glass’). Glasses are filled with bai jiu, and the guests have to drink several shots in order to show their respect for the hosts. The toasting practice and the nature of bai jiu make inebriation a natural consequence of such events, with no social stigma attached.

For their part, diners need to toast everyone who might outrank them. This practice is called jing jiu, which literally translates as ‘respectfully proposing a drink to someone else’. The etiquette of quàn jiǔ dictates that the person who initiates the toast is in an inferior position and needs to show respect. This requires standing up, holding the glass with both hands and drinking up the bai jiu in one shot. The person who receives the toast may remain seated and drink only a little. Typically though, in order to show respect, the receiver of the toast would also empty their glass.

More generally, in the drinking process everyone is expected to slightly touch on each other’s glass. People hold their glasses according to their status; younger guests and those in subordinate positions are required to keep them lower than their elders or superiors. Accordingly, elders and superiors should be served first. After drinking, younger guests might tip their glasses towards the seniors, to show that no bai jiu is left. This is a form of politeness and respect.

The practice of quàn jiǔ is gendered. Women are not expected to drink as much. Nevertheless, northern regions of China such as the Liaoning Province, Xijiang Province and Inner Mongolia are well known for female heavy drinkers.

The practice of quàn jiǔ involves ‘urging others to drink’. This can be interpreted as a challenge among equals with symbolic consequences for both competitors. Refusing to drink leads to a ‘loss of face’ for the person who proposed it, while accepting preserves or increases the reputation of the proponent. A generally accepted winning strategy during business banquets is that everybody should be drinking. Successful businessmen are usually proficient drinking partners, as a lack of such skills could easily affect the company’s reputation.

Quàn jiǔ is a way to express trust and build social relationships. The language used in toasting is positive, praising, and appreciative of the person or their work. Such language reduces the social distance, while alcohol gives people the chance to express their emotions casually, directly and fearlessly.

References and Bibliography

  1. Chen, Z and Han, G. 2007. ‘Gift Giving Culture in China and its Cultural Values’, Journal of Intercultural Communication Studies. 16(2).
  2. Daniel Ng. 2015. ‘Chinese Drinking Culture’, available at: http://www.shanghaiexpat.com/blog/shanghai-and-china/about-china/chinese-drinking-culture-22349.html (Accessed: 25 March, 2015).
  3. Fan, Y. 2000b. ‘A classification of Chinese cultural values’, Journal of Cross Cultural Management. 7(2). 3–10.
  4. Walulik, A. 2015. ‘A Westerner’s Guide to Chinese Drinking Culture’, available at: http://matadornetwork.com/nights/a-westerners-guide-to-chinese-drinking-culture/ (Accessed: 21st June, 2012).


Notes

  1. Bourdieu, P. 1986. ‘The forms of capital’, in J. G. Richardson (ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. New York: Greenwood Press: 241-58
  2. Chang, J. 2013. Empress Dowager CiXi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. Vintage Books. London.