“You must drink,” said the Dean. “When the server puts the fish down, it is our custom that the person its eye is looking at must take three shots. As you see, it is looking at you. This is our culture. Drink.”
If my count was right, I was now well into my second dozen of the miniature glasses of Chinese baijiu or “white liquor”. Though I enjoy drinking – bourbon, mostly – I could feel myself crossing into the unknown territory beyond my usual limits. There seemed to be no end in sight.
A Chinese colleague had set up this meeting between our university, a tiny school of 6000 undergraduates in Pennsylvania, and the Dean’s university located in large city in central China. They were welcoming us for our first visit to their campus with a large dinner in a private room. The food, however, took a secondary role to the drinking ritual. This particular brand of the 50-proof liquor, the Dean had informed us at the beginning, was the same brand that Xi Jinping uses to welcome foreign dignitaries.
To my right was a member of our international programs staff, both of us next to the Dean, in a privileged position facing the entrance of the room. “When I met the people from such-and-such university on Monday,” he whispered, “we did this starting at 11 in the morning. I had to take three of these shots with each person there.”
Some contemporary scholars have argued that Chinese society is best understood through the lens of a Confucian-inspired role ethics. According to this line of thought, you are the sum of your roles: father, mother, child, teacher, student, ruler, minister. In order to behave ethically, you must fulfil your role-specific obligations, as specified by the li or ritual. For a child, this includes serving your parents and providing them with respect throughout their lives. This relation between child and parent serves as the basis for other social relationships: between student and teacher, subject and ruler, and younger and older in general.
The Book of Rites, one of five classic Confucian texts said to be compiled by Confucius himself, includes the host and guest relationship as one of the seven cardinal relationships. In my experience, the drinking bouts often used to welcome foreign visitors to a Chinese university are born of the desire to forge genuine connections – to make a visiting speaker feel welcome, or to initiate a bond between universities that will result in a mutually beneficial exchange. “The first time we drink together,” the Dean said, “we are friends. The second time, we are brothers.”
I have a survival strategy for such occasions. When the host goes around the table to exchange drinks with other colleagues, I try to shovel down as much food as possible, in the hope that the liquor will not have as great an effect. If you are lucky, they will also offer you suannai, a delicious yogurt milk that is supposed to insulate the stomach.
I was glad I was not sitting across the table. If the fish’s tail was pointing at you, the Dean explained, you had to take four shots.
One of those on the other side was our third comrade for the trip, a graduate student from Shandong province who had just graduated from our university with a master’s degree. “Eat,” I mouthed, nodding at the long sticks of fried bread nearby. “Those.” When a few minutes later he had worked his way over to our side of the table for a toast, he leaned over to me and said: “Don’t worry. I just threw up in the restroom. I’m fine for now.”
The influential comparative philosopher Henry Rosemont, Jr. framed role ethics as a Confucian-inspired counter to Western rights-based theories that focus too narrowly on the individual. Our roles, beginning with those found in the family, give us clear and meaningful guidelines for acting in a way that makes positive contributions to society as a whole. The person who is a virtuoso in these roles is able to strengthen the relationships that are present in any given situation.
Nonetheless, as I waited early the next morning in the hotel lobby, nauseated by the smells coming from the nearby breakfast buffet, I was struck by just how little control I had exercised over my own behaviour the previous evening.
At the beginning of the drinking ritual, you can be declared ineligible if you are able to come up with some excuse. The sole male to abstain that night said he had to drive that evening (in China the penalty for driving after drinking any alcohol at all is severe). The two women at the table, one of them the Dean’s assistant, the other a junior professor, had no trouble in stating that they would do the toasts with tea. At first they smiled and took part in the festivities, but as the evening went on, they became more and more engrossed in their cell phones. On the other hand, if you were in once the drinking began, you were in all the way.
Perhaps you might think that I am letting myself off the hook here. As someone who teaches introductory philosophy classes on Friday morning every Spring and Fall semester in America, I want my own students to resist peer pressure and make their own decisions. If they want to stay in and study on Thursday night, then that’s what they should do, regardless of what their friends want them to.
I did make some effort. Several times during the early parts of the bout, the graduate student had given me a nod and lifted his glass, conveying that we should do our own counter-toast to the Dean and his associates, which would presumably signal an end to the drinking portion of the evening. But each time I rose, the Dean had shut me down as soon as I began to clear my throat. “Wait,” he said. “Professor Two-Seats-to-my-left will do his toast first.” My only other attempt at resistance was to ask, somewhere near the end of that second dozen, to be permitted to take just a half shot.
Why did I feel constrained? For one thing, the experience of drinking with the Dean and his associates awakened my sense of fellow feeling. If someone you have just met welcomes you with a huge dinner and toasts to your friendship, even brotherhood, you are inclined to just go along with it. Some of the participation, to be sure, happens because of the careful arrangement of the ritual. You are seated in a particular place, there is a speech of welcome, and then, after several dishes have arrived, a first toast is proposed. Once it starts, it is hard to resist.
Other factors contributed too. I thought that since an alliance between our universities could help our students quite a bit, it was important to be courteous and polite in representing my university. The Dean also had mentioned several times during the afternoon that he intended to invite me personally, at his own school’s expense, to visit and lecture at his university. Chinese universities are flush with money, and being a Dean is a powerful position.
Finally, I felt the pull of a male contest of strength. I am a 6’3” 220 pound American. Everyone else in my group was participating, as were all of the males of significant position on the Chinese side.
In the lobby the next morning, I asked the junior professor what she had thought of the night’s festivities. “I hate events like that,” she said. Do you end up at a lot of them? I asked. Yes, she answered. A few days later, when we visited a school where the president and the deans turned out to be all women, I heaved a sigh of relief. At lunch we toasted with tea and orange-ade, and the president seated next to me showed her generosity as a host by picking out choice pieces of chicken and fish and putting them on my plate.
Any of these reasons on its own might have been enough to commit myself to the drinking ritual. With all of them put together, I was not inclined to resist.
In their book The Chinese Way, Min Ding and Jie Xu write that many others have felt forced to participate in Chinese drinking culture. They cite a 2011 survey by a Chinese website:
“. . . [O]ut of the 8,433 respondents, 75.8% reported drinking because of social and work requirements, while just 4.4% reported that they enjoy drinking a little during regular dinners. They said they were ‘forced’ to drink for several reasons, including: wanting face (42.5%), being asked by a boss during business events or company gatherings (19.9%), and dining with potential customers or asking someone for a favor (10.5%). Interestingly, 8.3% also reported that they had to drink at dinner parties on behalf of their bosses.”
Noting that many college students in China work at building up their alcohol tolerance in order to fit in with the drinking culture, they say: “Imagine telling American undergraduates that this is an important job skill!”
I was not the only one in our group to be taken in by the ritual. The graduate student had returned from the restroom and continued the drinking bout, performing one toast with a bowl of baijiu rather than the miniature glass. He had thrown up one more time during the dinner, and three more times during the night. “What happened?” I asked. “Why didn’t you stop after the first time you threw up?”
“I felt I had to represent our university well to their people,” he said. “Also, since I am from Shandong and they are from here, I felt that I had to show that I could live up to their drinking culture.”
Never again, we both vowed.
Herbert Fingarette, one of the forerunners of role ethics, argued that Confucius saw ritual as a kind of magic that could have the desired effect on a person or community without resorting to force. “The magical element,” he writes in his book Confucius: The Secular as Sacred (1972), “always involves great effects produced effortlessly, marvelously, with an irresistible power that is itself intangible, invisible, unmanifest.” In a fully realised ritual, everyone has their appropriate place, and to take part is to participate in human community at its fullest. Fingarette says the even the sophisticated inhabitant of the modern world can learn from Confucius’ ideas about ritual.
However, we might see the “irresistible power” of ritual as one that is to be feared as much as embraced. There are rituals in our own society that exercise this power upon us, manipulating us into doing things that we don’t necessarily want to do. Corporations rely on rituals such as teambuilding to reinforce desired employee behaviour. Advertisers take advantage of customs associated with holidays, weddings, and the like to get us to spend more money. In the U.S., President Trump and Vice President Pence have used the national anthem to target their political opposition.
Opponents of the role ethical view of Confucianism have emphasised the importance of developing virtuous character for thinkers in this tradition. Having such a character is supposed to give you the capacity to step back from a particular ritual and judge its appropriateness. Confucius himself was not only an advocate of the power of ritual, but also a critic of rituals that missed their mark.
Did participating in the drinking ritual show a weak character on my part? Should I take some comfort in the fact that, even though things had gone too far, I had at least lived up to my role as guest? What is the right mix of virtue and role?
On the bus a few days later I asked my Shandong student, whose hometown is not too far from that of Confucius, what the Master would do if he was faced with the same drinking ritual we had been through.
“Confucius loved and respected ritual,” he said. “He would take part.”
But isn’t it lacking in virtue to drink so excessively, even if it is part of the ritual? I asked.
The student took a moment to reflect. “He would take part,” he said, “but when he wanted to stop, he would tell the host that he was finished.”
Six nights after the drinking bout with the Dean we received a dinner invitation at yet another university. When we walked into the room, I noticed several boxes piled in the corner. “To understand our culture, you must take part in the drinking of baijiu,” said the Director after the first few dishes had arrived. “Each province has its own customs – tonight we will show you ours!”
We lifted our glasses for the first toast.