5 Tips for Staying Sober in China

A whole lotta baijiu (c) nozomiiqel
A whole lotta baijiu (c) nozomiiqel

“Sober?” you say. “What in heaven’s name makes you think I want to stay sober in China?” I admit that the following advice doesn’t apply to a large portion of foreigners in China, but hear me out.

Whether you’re someone who never drinks, who only drinks socially, or one whose blood-alcohol level should be renamed their “alcohol-blood level”, I suspect that there always comes a time in China when you’re required to drink against your will. For those times, I offer these 5 tips.

The primary culprit in these kinds of situations is baijiu, China’s national beverage which is also known by other cliché nicknames such as “white lightning”, “fire water” or my favorite, “jet fuel”. In the three years that I have lived and traveled in China I can’t even count the number of times I have been pressured to drink this wretched liquid.

Incredibly (or maybe you just think I’m stupid), I have successfully been able to avoid drinking a drop of baijiu while still maintaining a measure of respect with my friends and colleagues. These are just a few of the ways I have found to be useful in my quest to stay reasonably sober while also preserving my “face” here in China:

1. Don’t Say No

Unless they offer you drugs

Saying no to somebody in China, especially a leader, is never advisable. I find that for Chinese people this goes for just about anything, not just drinking. A better way to go about denying a request is to have a good excuse or even a joke handy. Don’t just tell them you won’t drink, tell them why.

“My wife will kill me if I come home drunk” or “I’m trying to get in shape for a [insert sport here] tournament and have stopped drinking for now”. The possibilities are endless.

A word for the wise, though – make sure your excuses make you look good. Saying something to the effect of “I get violently ill if I drink this” makes you look weak. Trust me, I know from experience that they’ll just laugh at you.

2. You Can’t Drink if you Drive

Of course, if you can drive you now have the perfect out. Ever since receiving my driver’s license I haven’t had a bit of trouble with Chinese people asking me to drink. One mention of my motorcycle and they immediately back off. In China, at least where I live, there is a very strict “No Tolerance” policy concerning drinking and driving. Forget blood-alcohol levels, you’ll get arrested for even a trace of beer on your breath.

Can’t drive in China? No problem. Before I got my license I used to always use this as a joke. “Sorry guys, I would love to drink with you, but I’m the designated driver”. Every once in a while they would get to laughing and discussing my joke so much that they’d forget they had even asked me to drink.

3. BYOB

No alternative = no choice

No matter what excuse or method you use to get out of drinking, you’ll still want to participate in the toasts in order to earn the “guanxi”. Since tea is absolutely unacceptable, if there are no options other than alcohol then you’re pretty much screwed.

Acceptable alternatives that I’ve used are peach juice or grape juice. Sometimes I can get away with Sprite because it looks pretty similar when poured in the glass. The key is to request that these drinks be purchased before the party starts, at the point when they buy all the alcohol.

I may not look as “manly” drinking peach juice while everybody else is downing shots of baijiu but I’ve learned to deal with it. Thankfully most of them get too drunk to care what I’m drinking anyway.

4. Location, Location, Location

Choose Your Table Carefully

It may not be the best political move, but it will be best for your health. People at the leader’s table tend to have multiple rounds of toasts for the very reason that the leader is present. More drinking leniency is given at tables where people don’t feel like they have to save face.

In order to pay the proper respects, however, I’ll still walk over and toast the leader at his table, but I’ll do so with a drink I have poured. If he or she doesn’t know what’s in my glass, what do they care?

5. It Takes One to Beat One

You, too, can be a stubborn ass

After years of observation I’ve come to the conclusion that nobody really likes to drink baijiu, they just have to because the peer pressure is too great. Sometimes all of these different tips fail and they’re still telling me I need to drink because they just won’t be happy if I don’t. I laugh and smile, nod my head and just say “Uhh…sorry”.

I can hear what some of you are saying right now: “Oh, come on! Just drink it for goodness sakes. Are you too good for Chinese customs?” My answer is that if they’re allowed to be stubborn asses, pushing and pushing me to drink something that in all likelihood they don’t like either, why can’t I be one too? I participate in more than my fair share of Chinese customs so I don’t have a problem refusing this one.

Then again, maybe this is just me. Any other good tips, or am I the only person in this country who refuses to drink baijiu?

Talk on 5 Tips for Staying Sober in China


14 Comments
  1. I’m just glad to see someone else agree with me that no one actually likes baijiu. It’s made from equal parts sorghum and misguided machismo.

  2. Good points, drinking pressure is difficult for many. I stopped giving in for awile, but then I found that I really need some alcohol to get through the interminable 3 hour dinners.

  3. I actually like baijiu. (and I’m not just saying that.) That doesn’t mean I like drinking it in a snifter on the rocks, but a little shot of some decent baijiu goes great with Chinese food, especially the spicy stuff. 一边吃一边喝. But yeah, I realize I’m in the minority here.
    二锅头 though is from the devil.

  4. Profile photo of Steven

    I’ve found that being British helps a lot in avoiding baijiu. With such a reputation for binge-drinking going before us Brits, my workmates wanna see me chugging beer. I’m not a big drinker, but i’d rather knock back several bottles of Snow that even smell a drop of baijiu!

  5. The line about my wife killing me if I come home drunk did work (too bad I wasn’t married the first year in China). Only time it didn’t work was when we were with her friends and she encouraged me to drink with them.

    I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid baijiu since my wedding. In my time in China I only had one baijiu that I considered good–it was some local stuff in Guilin that tasted a bit like scotch. They called it baijiu, but it wasn’t clear.

  6. I think that you forgot a very important tip: “GET THE HELL OUT OF CHINA!!!!”

    I’m glad that you made this post Josh, as I think that Lao Wai alcohol consumption is a very understand problem here. I myself can not stand baiju, but I certainly fall victim to the temptations of cheap large sized beer. It just tastes SOOOO good on a hot and humid day.

  7. @flasthirstby – first of all, please pick a better handle! I hate it when I have to continually scroll up to try and spell one correctly while simultaneously pronouncing some weird word to help me remember. Anyway, I hear you about the interminable banquets. I just take multiple “bathroom breaks” to walk outside :)

    @Jason – my hat’s off to you, man. You must be a special breed of something to say the words “decent” and “baijiu” next to each other.

    To everybody else, I’m glad to see that I’m not alone. I honestly sent this to Ryan not quite sure how the reaction would be. I’m not sure this one drink makes me want to leave China (sorry, Glen!), but it has been frustrating at times.

  8. Profile photo of

    I *feel* like baijiu should be the same as any other liquor and improve as your palate becomes accustom to it. I remember as a teenager I wasn’t thrilled with the taste of beer or wine, but now love both. My early 20s didn’t allow me to appreciate hard liquor (particularly rye’s and scotches) the way I can now.

    I always assumed the same was true with baijiu and I just wasn’t giving it the chance it deserved.

    Perhaps I was scarred by my time in the north and their penchants of drinking 二锅头 by the mug-full, but I have only once in my half-decade here ever drank a drop of baijiu that I can even remotely say I enjoyed.

    Sadly it was one of those 500RMB/bottle deals, and I just can’t be bothered with the expense of it for a Friday night of improving my baijiu appreciation.

    @Josh – great post.

    @Jason – this one‘s for you m8.

  9. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving a flatout ‘no.’

    I always felt obligated to try to understand Chinese culture, and to that end I didn’t refuse for the first few years that I was in China. Eventually I realized that few deep friendships or relationships sprung from this kind of self-sacrifice. So wtf am I saying yes for?

    Just as I should make an effort to understand Chinese culture, I think I should also make an effort to explain to these guys that in my culture it can often be extremely rude and obnoxious to force ill-tasting liquor upon your friends. In business, it might even be offensive if you come on too strong in this way.

    That said, I do have to admit that I ended up (as Glen said) ‘getting the hell out of China’ — and I’d be lying if I said that cultural gems like this didn’t play a small factor.

  10. I just follow the example of my father-in-law, who simply and insistently says “Thanks, but I do not drink” over and over again. No one thinks less of him, quite the opposite, in fact.

  11. There is a definitely a problem with saying no. In fact a direct response in nearly any situation in china/asia should more or less be avoided. However sticking with the subject at hand, it is important to stand firm at the outset. If you give in and accept that first glass thinking “oh just one cant hurt” think again. Once you accept one you will be hounded relentlessly to continue drinking. So if you want to avoid it, its crucial to nip it in the bud right from the start.

  12. At my wedding in my wife’s hometown, people tried to push baijiu my way, which I adamantly declined (first year in China was a bit of a haze thanks to baijiu, now I can’t even smell the stuff) but I countered with copious amounts of beer. They took a sip of baijiu, I’d down a glass of beer. They were sufficiently impressed, seeing as how I’m a pretty thin dude. I’ve found that in social drinking occasions, this sip-for-glass exchange works pretty well and people don’t force the issue too much. Fortunately I’ve got a hollow leg where I store all the beer that I guzzle.

  13. In my two and a half years in China I went from being completely disgusted by the smell of baijiu to requesting it at dinners.

    It is the dictonary definition of “an acquired taste”, but once it grows on you it’s actually pretty good. I would only ever drink baijiu during a meal (preferably lunch or dinner, but I’ve done breakfast before), and only with Chinese food. Baijiu and steak just doesn’t sound right.

  14. This will only work for females, but I’ve found that the ONLY excuse that consistently works is that “my husband and I are trying to have a baby.” They almost immediately back off and offer their congratulations. That’s been working for the past couple years and there’s never been any follow up to see if a baby actually came around!

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