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Turning down drink without causing loss of face?


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At various dinner parties, over the course of my recent trip to China, I was offered wine. As a nephalist, I turned them down, toasting with peach juice. It occurred to me at the time that it was possible I was causing them offense, but no one said anything. This notion was further reinforced in a Beijing film I watched only today, in which a host became very upset at their guest's refusal, exclaiming that his face had "fallen to the floor." There were other native teetotalers present at some of the parties I attended, but they were close friends of the host. How can I turn down drink without causing loss of face to the host?

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I don't have an answer to this but I have a related question. How do you get the drink changed to something more palatable. I have no problem with baijiu or wine or almost any other drink, but I can't stand beer. Everything else is OK; however, beer is usually bought for you without even asking for it. How do you change the drink without upsetting the host?

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semantic nuance


When people cannot take truth nicely, how about telling them a white lie? You can tell them that you are allergical to alcohol, which will make you itchy all over and feel sick. You may ask them if you can drink some other soft drinks instead?

Hope it helps!:)

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Hi Friday,

This is a good question which many people may have different takes on. First it helps if you are female in refusing alcohol as there are double standards.

Second drinking with the Boss can help. If you keep up with them moderately you will stay in their good graces. When I asked my Masters business students who were about to do a year's Study in an Italian MNE what I should work on for doing CHinese business they said learn to drink, and to drink a lot. I have had friend who worked for government agencies and schools who have recieved bonuses and raises for drinking their bosses literally under the table.

1 Tactics should be split into 2 parts one if you don't want to drink at all. (This is highly unlikely and somewhat frowned upon)

2. Tactics for minimizing the amount that you drink.

For 1, you can claim that you are allergic to alochol. This works with vegetarians and meat most of the time.

You can feign that you have a cold and have been taking some strong medicine and can't have the drug interaction.

You can try and claim that your company does not allow you accept alcoholic gifts, though food is ok. Or has some other policy on drinking

2. Minimizing drinking.

The best way is to team up with someone and constantly have group toasts . If you stand up and point at someone they have to toast with you. Don't let them get you one person with people around the table toasting you.

You can pretend to drink and spill some or just wet your lips.

When they are not looking pour some into your side bowl. or plate if you can.

Refuse to drink bottoms up, that it is not the western way at the restaurant.

Try to be talking with someone all the time, if you're talking it is harder to ask you to drink.

Figure out who is out to get you, or who is the ring leader and drink them under the table first then the others won't hassle you as much. .

If you're out to drink them under it is ok to go out to the bathroom and puke a bit to help you continue drinking.

Try to drink only expensive Baijiu at least 150 RMB as the other stuff will get your sick.

These are just a few of the tactics, I am sure others can speak of more.

Some like baijiu shots are easier to pour into the bowl or plate with out too much notice.

At weddings it is traditional for the Groom and Bride to toast all the guests, (though it is usually done table by table with 10-20 tables it is still a feat). There are also drinking situations in the ceremony performance. The best man carries the fake "baijiu" so the pair can last the evening. Even with this weaker baijiu I have seen many a tipsy/puking bride. So count yourself lucky it isn't a wedding :)

Have fun,


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I don't think you should worry about causing offence. They might think you are a wet blanket, or not want to go out with you again, but I don't think they will take real offence. Even though you are a guest in another culture, you should still be true to yourself and explain your reasons. Maybe they'll respect you in the morning when they think to themselves "wow, that guy managed to resist us".

They will keep on pushing you to drink, and you just keep on refusing - it's all part of the game and the banter. If you watch the other drinkers, most of the time they're arguing about who's to drink what and how much. So you can try to stay jovial, and join their banter. Maybe you can deflect them by suggesting a forfeit: "I'll eat one of these super-hot chillies for every glass you drink". Then you can over-act your spicy pain and everyone will have a laugh together. Because that's the point of the drinking: to have a laugh and break down the social barriers.

All this is theory though - I never managed to resit without being a boring sod!

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just tell the truth; you don't drink. if they have a problem with that, too bad. i think the

'losing face' problem is an overblown western movie 'inscrutable oriental' stereotype, at

least in this case. anyone that takes such offense that they resort to bullying you (beyond

simple peer pressure; "c'mon have a drink") to force you to drink, is neither a friend nor

a good host, regardless of the culture.

anyways, to avoid 'misunderstandings,' tell your friends you don't drink when you accept

an invitation, and again when you meet before entering the bar/ktv/restaurant. if invited

to someone's home, quietly tell the host before any drinks are served.

of course, if you believe the situation demands you lie, you can say either your religeon

forbids alcohol, or you're taking medication that cannot mix with likker.

full disclosure: although not a heavy drinker, i've yet to decline a drink. however, it did

take some encouragement to suck the flaming bacardi through a straw.

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you can say either your religeon forbids alcohol
That might or might not work. I was translating for a guy from Dubai once; being a Muslim, he declined to drink any alcohol. When I told the Chinese that he couldn't drink alcohol because of his religion, they served red wine and told him that it was just grape juice... Luckily, he was suspicious enough to consult me first!
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anyone that takes such offense that they resort to bullying you (beyond

simple peer pressure; "c'mon have a drink") to force you to drink, is neither a friend nor

a good host

While by and large I agree with this statement, sometimes you might be having dinner with people who are neither good friends, or good hosts, but at the same time you have to be there and lying, getting angry or walking out isn't an option.

I don't really drink much, in fact mostly not really at all, and on several occasions my continued refusal to drink, or refusal to drink more than a small amount (even when refusing in a nice way), has made things very awkward and uncomfortable (not to mention the fact it's meant that I've then had to listen to countless lectures about the importance of Chinese drinking culture and how I should 入乡随俗).

Anyway, if you speak Chinese, these are phrases I've found to be useful when refusing alcohol:

我滴酒不沾 - I don't don't drink any alcohol (not even one drop).

我以茶(饮料)代酒 - I'll use tea (softdrink) in place of alcohol.

只要感情有,喝啥都是酒 As long as there is feeling (between us), it doesn't matter what we drink, it's the same as if we were drinking alcohol.

These three phrases, which I'll typically use in the order listed above and in reponse to increasingly strong requests to have something alcoholic to drink, are usually enough to get you out of most drinking situations in a nice and friendly manner, while still showing "respect" to the host.

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Agree with most of what's being said here. I think it's much easier to refuse to drink outright than to just drink in small amounts. For me, the best excuse is the "feigning illness" excuse. You could say you have "wei4bing4" (stomach condition) and demonstrate this even further by avoiding spicy food. It's a bit of a stock excuse though, and they may see through it. But I generally find that a lot of Chinese people are very sensitive about their health (verging on the hypochondriac) and so anything relating to health should be a good excuse.

There are some cases where people will just persist and persist in trying to get you to drink - they push so much that they get themselves into situations where they can only lose face. I think this says a lot about their character - I would never trust anyone who did this in any other area of life. They care nothing for your comfort, but only their own standing. Stand up to them!

Most people are fine though. Once, I was on the verge of being totally wasted on baijiu, and refused my host's offer of another glass and he said "Ok, I respect you. You know when to stop." That can be the start of a good relationship

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I agree with #6.

As to saying "我滴酒不沾" to the host, even I, who never think forcing anyone to drink makes sense, would find it offensive/impolite. The tone is very abrupt and sounds like 我義正詞嚴. I think a softer "我(完全)不喝酒的" or "我是(完全)不能喝酒的" are more acceptable.

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People keep on saying that you have to refuse outright. But much of the time you are in a business negotiation with the company or you want to get some favor or cooperation from them. I'm suprised the China hands Imron and Skylee agree with them.

In these cases and others I think some Traditional Chinese people may take offense if you refuse to drink at all.

(Things are changing for younger people, and the excuse I have to drive is sometimes respected)

I found substituting different alcohol can be possible say beer or grape wine for bai jiu. You will find a lot of Chinese people like Baiwei, Budweiser because of its low alcohol content.

Do you agree there are certain situations when you want something that it will help to toast with the hosts?

have fun,


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I don’t drink, and seldom go to 应酬/ social intercourse. I nearly go out only with family members or friends, I can frankly tell them I don’t drink without the need to find an excuse, and I just want a glass of water or tea. If I were in the situation mentioned above, I think “You can tell them that you are allergical to alcohol” is a pretty good idea, which can avoid 多费口舌/ many suasive talking.

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semantic nuance

NORMALLY, people will decline the idea of making you drink after you tell them that you don't drink at all. BUT, what do you do when you deal with THOSE PAIN-IN-THE-NECK WHO WILL NEVER EVER GIVE UP? Trust me, there are a bunch of NUTS out there!!!:evil:

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As a nephalist, I turned them down, toasting with peach juice. It occurred to me at the time that it was possible I was causing them offense, but no one said anything.

Just tell them that you practice nephalism. They'll understand.

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Just say no.

What a storm in a baijiu cup!

You are a foreigner! They know you are crazy.

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Friday, just a sidenote, that many Chinese cuisines would use wines or alcohols as condiments. I don't know if it really matters in your case, but just as I have said, it is a kind sidenote.

I would agree that it is disturbing to be pestered by someone during a feast to 'bottom-up' again and again, especially when one has clearly stated the reasons why he refuses to drink more. At any rate, people are justified to refuse such proposals, or in a better way, just take the initiative to prevent any from happening. I mean, before those nuisances lay their evil eyes on you, or even well before they conceive such ideas, you can just stand up, with the beverage you intend to drink for the rest of the feast in hand, and propose with good words to the table/host/most revered. Only to remember to add the specific reasons why you are holding another liquid at the end of your toast. Act casually and sincerely, people would always accept your toast and get the hidden message. Hereafter, you are unlikely to be hassled with alcohol and don't have to worry about the chances of offending anyone to answer a toast with non-alcoholic drinks. :)

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Show them a video of any British provincial town at 2am on a Saturday morning, shout "BRING IT ON!", smash the table as hard as you can with both fists, then down the drink.

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I think a softer "我(完全)不喝酒的" or "我是(完全)不能喝酒的" are more acceptable.
Heh, I guess I should have mentioned that I don't start using those phrases until after the phrases you listed have failed :)

Maybe the situation is different down south (both in HK and Kunming), but definitely in Hebei and surrounding areas (and from what I've heard, the more northern provinces) there is a very strong drinking culture prevalent at meals (and by meals, I'm mostly referring to going out for a meal, and not meals at home). It's not about westerners having stereotypes of inscrutable Chinese, it's about hosts/other dinner guests pointing their empty glasses at you and telling you directly that by only having one mouthful of your drink you are disrespecting them. They then continue pointing their empty glass at you and lecturing you about Chinese drinking culture until you have likewise drained your glass. This of course gets awkward very quickly if you don't want to do that.

Now if it was only for one glass, I wouldn't mind, and when I first came to China I would go along with such requests. However what you then find is that there is no such thing as drinking in moderation. Either you completely abstain, or you get wasted, because once you've had one glass and it's been witnessed that you have drunk some alcohol, there is usually no going back and to not continue drinking would also cause offense. Usually the complaints start out innocently enough, along the lines of "you drank a full glass for him, why won't you drink a full glass for me?", or "you drank a full glass with me before, why won't you do it now?", but continued refusal to drink alcohol results in things degenerating soon enough.

Of course there are many Chinese hosts who will respect a guest's drinking habits and not 劝酒. The situations I talk about above (and that I've experienced on many occasions) are only talking about those hosts who see drinking alcohol as a vital part of friendship and respect, and unfortunately for me it would seem I've had meals with quite a few of these types.

Simonlaing, I definitely agree there are certain situations where it will help to toast with the hosts, and I don't mind the toasting if I'm allowed to go at my own pace, or if no-one minds that I use a non-alcoholic drink for the toasts. Like I mentioned above, what I object to is downing glass after glass after glass of whatever alcoholic beverage is on the table, without there being any middle ground.

Elina, women can get away with not drinking, or only asking for tea/soft-drink. The same is rarely true for guys. Saying you're allergic doesn't work either (see gougou's comments above about religion).

Liuzhou, the foreign card works in some cases but not for others. It's also much harder to use if people know you speak a decent amount of Chinese especially as you then have to listen to lecture after lecture about Chinese drinking culture and how important it is, and as a foreigner how you should 入乡随俗..

Hereafter, you are unlikely to be hassled with alcohol
How I wish this were true. I've tried this tactic too, but sadly, there are some people who will just never let it rest.
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Maybe the situation is different down south (both in HK and Kunming), but definitely in Hebei and surrounding areas (and from what I've heard, the more northern provinces) there is a very strong drinking culture prevalent at meals (and by meals, I'm mostly referring to going out for a meal, and not meals at home).

It's true that most southerners can't drink very much. You'll also find more people who are truely allergic to alcohol in southern China. They lack a certain type of enzyme that's needed to digest alcohol. Some suffer very severe symptoms like hives appearing all over the body. Others simply turn very red in the face.

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In my experience things are refreshingly different down south - I once tried to top someone's beer up and was told I'd picked up bad northern habits and I should let people manage their own drinking.

If you keep your eyes open (and focused) it's not unusual to see the 'heaviest' drinkers cheating - watering down their drinks, swapping it for something completely different, etc. I'll generally drink a respectable amount, but have no time for anyone who makes a face issue out of it - basically if they choose to make it a face issue, I'm quite happy for them to lose it. On one occasion though I just got fed up and pretended to be outside making a phone call for two hours (I was by that point drunk enough that I thought people would believe me).

I also have some very particular opinions about anyone who tries to tell the host that someone else (well, me mainly) is 海量 or similar.

Can be a very awkward situation if you really can't / don't want to drink any alcohol. Personally I wouldn't try to be too subtle or apologetic about it. Maybe take control and get a toast in first, explaining that you will use tea or whatever, and you are sure the world-famous Chinese hospitality will respect that. At least then they've been warned and only then have themselves to blame for any face-losing later on. However anyone who makes any more than joking efforts to get you to drink after you've clearly said you don't want to is jumping out of the 'traditional culture' box into the 'rude' box as far as I'm concerned.

EDIT: Just remembered some advice I got early on, which I suspect the giver himself had never implemented: "Just drink whatever they give you, but bring it right back up over them. They'll learn soon enough."

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