In China, rounds of toasts boost camaraderie and business, Sun Li reports from Beijing.
Drinking alcohol is an important part of social life in China. No matter how you feel about spirits, you'll be invited to take part in a raucous round of ganbei (bottoms up) at formal or casual dinners.
With diners urging each other to drink alcoholic beverages in cities all over the country, the toasting culture is a pervasive, albeit tipsy way of building relationships, doing business and enhancing friendships.
"Every time I walk into a restaurant in my hometown, I can hear people exclaiming 'cheers!'" said Liu Shichang, a civil servant from Changchun, capital of Northeast China's Jilin province.
"Minutes later, I'll be doing the same thing with my pals, encouraging friends to drink up." Liu said.
According to Liu, people in Northeast China are fond of baijiu, the white, distilled Chinese liquor that lubricates guests' gullets at nearly every banquet in the country.
"Though it is fiery, baijiu is often drunk in a single gulp in ganbei fashion in my hometown, maybe a reflection of people's straightforwardness and sincerity, a critical part of making friends," Liu said
He added that there are no long-winded toasts in his hometown. More common would be something like "let's take a shot", and sometimes friends play drinking games to keep the baijiu flowing.
"When dining with friends or to develop social relationships, it's very important to let loose, not hold back your boozing ability at the dinner table," Liu said. "That's why I don't stop toasting and drinking until I'm drunk."
Ma Chiyuan, a software company's marketing manager from Dezhou, Shandong province, a region with a more entrenched drinking culture, said people in his hometown love toasting, but the toast has to be specific and make sense.
"If you propose a toast by simply saying 'let's drink' or 'bottoms up', no one would repeat it," Ma said.
"You have to say something that gives a good reason to drink first. For example, I could toast sharing the same family name with a stranger because we are offspring of the same ancestor."
The 30-year-old, self-proclaimed "seasoned ganbei-er" said that in Shandong, the toasting at a banquet normally begins after all drink together the first glass of baijiu in response to the host's toast.
"The host will set the drinking rules. If he says it's a bottoms-up dinner, everyone should follow suit. He could decide that shots of alcohol are drunk three times," Ma said.
"Regardless of the rules and the toast address, the idea at banquets is to drink to happiness, which means getting drunk," Ma said.
So toasts are repeated. And even if somebody cannot drink, he is obliged to take a sip, because the alcohol carries genuine feelings and the toast is always made in the name of love and friendship, he said.
"In most urban areas, it doesn't necessarily end with people being terribly drunk. The host will be pleased if the guests all drink to the limit of their abilities, for otherwise, he would dissatisfy the guests for not entertaining well," Ma said, adding that in rural areas, people are likely to prefer binge drinking, which can get messy.
Not everyone enjoys the intoxicating ritual.
Zhang Ting, a real estate manager in Qingdao, Shandong province, said he is tired of indulging in the city's brand of beer and the incessant toasts with baijiu at formal dinners.
"When I talk business or try to establish ties at banquets, I sometimes have to knock back dozens of beers," Zhang said. "If it were baijiu, I would end up with a hangover."
Zhang said the situation is always out of his control.
"Drinking can earn trust and friendship, and not drinking can spoil a deal and undermine relationships. Heavy drinking seems to be a prerequisite for doing business," he said.
"To drink or not to drink, that's a matter of face," said Liu Hao, a senior at a university in Beijing. Always embarrassed by his limited tolerance to alcohol, Liu said he often finds himself in a situation where drinking is obligatory.
"Although I don't like the feeling of being sloshed, I respond to toasts, which are popular in campus life now," Liu said. But he said he wished he could hold his liquor better, seeing that many jobs advertisements nowadays demand applicants have a tolerance for alcohol.
"Alcohol has been linked with showing respect ever since it was created, as it was initially used in the ancient sacrifice ceremony," said Tang Yuemin, a professor at Shangdong University's China Center for Cultural Industry Research.
Even the great philosopher Confucius (551-479 BC) once claimed that the only thing that has no limit is drinking spirits, he added. "In modern society, drinking customs evolved, but they still bear a strong element of courtesy. Hosts offer alcohol and propose toasts to demonstrate hospitality and good intentions, and declining to drink with hosts is always considered disrespectful," he said.
The last few decades have seen soaring alcohol consumption fuelled by increased personal freedom and rising incomes, he said.
Due to the bold and uninhibited nature of people in North China, binge drinking and excessive toasting are endemic in that region.
The prolonged shot drinking occurs in a lot in business circles, for continuous toasts are believed to warm relations and lead to advantage in negotiations, Tang said. "However, since heavy drinking can harm people's health, a culture of moderate toasting should be encouraged, regardless of whether we drink for fun or for our careers," he suggested. "The important idea in China's drinking culture is to be happy, but that won't happen if the drinking causes health problems."