There are many posts out there offering guides to drinking in Shanghai that are similar to the one I recently posted on enjoying the diversity of Shanghai’s Nightlife. However, very few guides come complete with information on how to handle drinking overseas. An American man wouldn’t walk into a sports bar on game night and order a cosmopolitan, this would cause quite a few eyebrows to be raised over the course of his stay in said bar. Likewise, you should be aware of the unspoken drinking guidelines that are customary in Shanghai before your visit. Here are a few of those cultural tips to help you acclimate quicker to Shanghai’s nightlife culture.
1.) Beer etiquette. Men usually order beer. This seems to be almost universal, but in China you order a beer for the whole table (just one, or a few) and keep in mind that it comes in a larger bottle. The waitress will provide you with tiny glasses into which you pour the beer. For a casual setting you can pour the glasses to the brim, but in an office or banquet-style setting you should pour only a shot worth into each glass, as it will be consumed in one gulp after each toast. The guest of honor will make a toast and everyone will ‘gan-bei’ which means ‘empty glass.’ It is customary to shoot the beer like a shot and then pour the next round and wait for the next toast. In a casual setting with your local Shanghai friends, you can simply sip your beer normally unless a toast is offered and then you must finish whatever is in your glass. Keep in mind that when making a cheers your glass should be lower than or equal to the person’s you are clinking with, as this is a sign of respect.
2) Liquor Etiquette. In China, drinking hard alcohol is a serous undertaking. In a large group, it isn’t uncommon to buy a bottle for the table and a few mixers. However, if the setting if a bit more fancy or traditional, you may find yourself drinking rice liquor. This is strong stuff, and the taste is somewhere between lighter fluid and WD-40. Any shots taken of this needs to be quickly followed with a chaser (perfectly acceptable). Luckily, shot glasses in most fancier establishments are tiny, and your host will usually give you the opportunity to indicate if you’d like a full shot glass or a partially full one. I’d recommend the partially full method until you get used to the feeling of your eyeballs hazing over. Shanghai locals take great pride in how strong their rice liquor (baijiu) is, and you can score big points by complimenting it, or asking which province your particular bottle hails from.
3) Wine Etiquette. Wine is becoming more popular in China, but very few laymen know anything about the substance. You’ll find a few reds or whites on the menu in nicer establishments, but unless the bar or restaurant specializes in wine you might do better to stay away from it or stick to the locally produced plum wine. This wine is somewhat thicker and sweeter than any fruit wine you may be used to, and has the alcohol content of a light port. It is very enjoyable and goes well with most Shanghai foods. With wine, it is poured by the glass (usually an extremely small wine-shaped glass) and unless you specifically request it, the bottle is not left behind. This makes it hard to share your purchase, and thus not really acceptable in a large, traditional or banquet setting. In casual drinking encounters with friends, it is a nice treat.