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(Post by FRANCISCO LITTLE)
If the last words you ever hear in China are gan bei (dry glass) you’ll know you went out in a spirited way. Drinking has been intimately intertwined in almost every aspect of Chinese culture since earliest times. Having heard about the famous toasting sessions I was very excited to be invited to my first dinner banquet with a group of friends and officials in the coastal city of Dalian.
We were booked into a restaurant’s private room, usual procedure when guests are invited out, and took our seats to many introductions and rounds of applause.
The first wave of appetisers had scarcely been deposited on the lazy susan when our host gesticulated to the waiter to bring the bottle of baijiu, white spirit whose ingredients can include everything from maize, barley, oak, millet to petrochemicals. Shot glasses were filled with the 60%-proof colourless liquid for the first toast. I put my hand over my glass and told the host I didn’t drink. He chose not to hear and insisted I fill my glass. This was going to be tricky, I thought — I didn’t want him to lose face, but at the same time, no way was baijiu going to pass my lips. Our eyes duelled over the pickled cabbage starters. Rapid negotiations ensued, with one of my colleagues making passionate pleas on my behalf.
“Hao, OK,” the host relented, shooting me a look that said we shouldn’t be breathing the same air.
I had my glass filled with juice. As soon as the first round of drinks was poured the host lifted his glass in a general toast, right hand holding the top of the glass, and two fingers of the left hand lightly touching the bottom of the glass.
He made a toast to eternal friendship, shooting me a glance and downing his drink, before showing us all that his glass was empty. “Gan bei!” Everyone did the same. I took a sip of my juice. My colleague quickly whispered in my ear.
“Chinese say, if we are good friends, then bottoms up; if not, then just take a sip.”
I was blowing it big time. All indications pointed to the fact that friendship seemed to depend on the volume of drink I could throw down my throat.
After the opening toast, it’s open season. Confusion reigned, with waitresses bringing plate after plate of every
imaginable dish. Chopsticks flashed, gan beis followed one after the other, empty glasses banged a staccato on the table.
The volumes of conversation rose in proportion to the alcohol intake and in less time than it takes to open a new bottle we reached screaming levels. The fifth bottle of baijiu came and went. The host’s eyes shone like new ball-bearings. Two of the guests had literally turned red. One, hand shaking uncontrollably, was clearly unable to drink further. I pointed this out to my colleague. His shrug said “so what?” The host verbally blasted anyone who looked remotely like their gan beis were slacking off. Everyone was starting to look the worse for wear. This was good — the more drunk the guests, the greater the host’s prestige, as long as a measure of coherence in speech and gesture was maintained.
I decided it was time I made a toast while everyone was still compos and leapt to my feet. There were vacant stares, people probably wondering why I was still there.
“To good times and good company!” I said, “gan bei!” and swallowed my juice with a flourish.
Not to be outdone, red face staggered to his feet and proposed, “To friendship through drink”, swallowed his drink and collapsed. He was helped up and propped back on his chair. It was starting to resemble a casualty ward. One of the ladies was sweating profusely and held her head in both hands. The host had returned from the toilet, looking much improved (I am told that breaks are allowed for people to leave and return to the fray in a better disposition).
What seemed like an eternity had in fact lasted only two hours. It wasn’t so much a drinking marathon but more like a sprint. I thought it would be so much easier to just stick a hosepipe down each guest’s throat and pump them full. Ah, but then you couldn’t show your glass was empty. Raising a glass to other cultures always holds an element of unpredictability that is simultaneously eye-opening and requires tolerance.
We live and learn – and you have to drink to that!
Francisco Little, Beijing, China
South African born artist, writer and photographer Francisco Little grew up in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Francisco currently splits his time living in Beijing, China and painting in his studio in Foothill Ranch, California. He has held several joint and solo exhibitions and to date the bulk of his work has been sold to collectors, corporate clients and those with a love of the abstract worldwide. Check out his website and blog or follow him on Twitter.Tweet