When I first came to Beijing, I learned pretty early on that the Chinese like to drink. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s lunch or dinner; as long as a meal is being hosted, there will be alcohol.
Having spent the previous ten years living in the Middle East, where alcohol is either kept at a low profile or prohibited altogether, this came as a pleasant change, though going from almost zero alcohol to being offered drinks with an alcoholic concentration as high as 60 percent came as a bit of a shock.
My guide book summed it up perfectly: “Chinese wine is more like rocket fuel than liquor. No matter how good a drinker you may think you are, never, ever challenge a Chinese into a drinking contest. They will win, hands down!”
Toasting is, of course, an important part of Chinese business etiquette. In Britain, on the other hand, some of the stronger drinks are kept until the end of the meal. In fact, some 150 years ago, diners would wait until the end of the meal, before the ladies would retire and then the men would get down to the serious drinking.
In formal dinners, some of the old customs still remain. For instance, vintage port – a fortified wine – is always decanted into a flask and then passed around the table in a clockwise direction. Ideally, the decanter should never stop its clockwise progress around the table until it is finished. If the decanter should ever stall it is considered very bad form to ask for it. Instead, you ask the person hogging the decanter: "Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?".
If they are au fait with port etiquette they will immediately realise their faux pas and pass along the decanter with an apology. If not, and they answer in the negative, you should say: "He's a terribly good chap, but he always forgets to pass the port."
It is unclear which forgetful and inebriated Bishop of Norwich is responsible for inspiring this particularly part of the etiquette!