Peter Chi knows he has to cut back on his drinking. It is not much fun at the best of times and the worst have included hospitalization — after drinking fake alcohol — and the numerous evenings where he has passed out at the table.
“No one likes binge drinking, but it’s not under your control,” he said. “Of course I don’t like it, but there’s nothing I can do.”
Chi, from northeastern Liaoning Province, is not an alcoholic. Nor is he a party animal, despite his four-times-a-week binges. However, as a respectable headteacher in his 40s, he feels he has little choice but to indulge — or risk harming his career.
In the west, binge drinking is associated with young men and women spilling out of pubs and clubs in the early hours of the mornings, but in China drinkers are older and — in many cases — drinking not just for fun but for career reasons.
“If I drink, it doesn’t necessarily help me get promoted, but if I don’t, it’s less likely that I will be. So I must drink, even if it’s not pleasant at all,” Chi said. “People want to show they are forthright and try to get along with others ... It’s very normal to get an order to drink from bosses.”
In fact, some job adverts explicitly demand applicants who can hold their alcohol.
“Candidates with good drinking capacity will be prioritized,” said an advert for the Hunan Zhike Public Security Engineering Company, an alarms and surveillance technology firm that is seeking a business manager.
“The job is to develop business through establishing closer connections with our clients. Drinking is a big part of the work,” the recruiter explained, adding that the successful candidate will need to handle from 250ml to 500ml of baijiu at a time.
The clear spirit, usually made from sorghum, ranges in price from as little as 5 yuan — less than US$0.80 — to tens of thousands of yuan for vintage bottles of the best brands. It is a staple of formal or celebratory dinners, often coupled with beer. It is also notorious for causing inebriation, since it is from 80 to 120 proof and frequently consumed in large quantities.
Alcohol certainly greases the wheels of business in the West, too, but people can usually stop after one or two glasses. In China, the opposite is often true: It is much easier to refuse an initial drink than to stop once you have started.
Foreigners are not immune to the pressure — one friend recalls being poured half pints of baijiu by an overly hospitable local official, who paused briefly only to vomit before topping up his glass again.
Drinking to develop and cement relationships has a long history in China.
As one traditional saying goes, “when one drinks with a friend, a thousand cups are not enough.”
That does not mean bingeing has been the norm: In the 1980s, a study of Chinese classical poetry concluded that heavy drinking had been in and out of favor over the years.
Experts have suggested that Chinese habits — consuming alcohol with food, playing drinking games and toasting in a highly ritualized fashion — served to regularize alcohol intake and limit drunkenness.
However, in the last few decades, consumption has soared, fueled by increased personal freedoms and rising incomes.
“Excessive drinking, frequent drinking [five to seven days a week] and binge drinking behavior have reached epidemic proportions among current drinkers in China,” a study published in the journal Addiction said last month.