In advance of Graham Earnshaw’s talk at the Beijing Bookworm on Saturday, here’s a chapter from his brand new book, The Great Walk of China. After crossing flat country for most of the distance from Shanghai, Graham finds himself in the Dabie Mountains of rural Anhui Province.
Chapter 2: Drinking Games
The day’s walk was over and I returned to Chashui for dinner. I called Teacher Xu, who asked me to come to the school gates at 5.30pm. Arriving promptly, Teacher Xu led me inside to a conference room where I found a delegation of five men waiting for me, three of them in suits. Leading the delegation was Mr. Cheng Zhihua, secretary of the Qianshan County Communist Youth League, who looked about thirty-five years old. Accompanying him were his assistant, Mr. Huang, Teacher Xu and two vice-headmasters. Headmaster Chen, I was informed, was not available.
“I think it is very beautiful,” I replied.
“We welcome people from all over the world,” he responded, so I asked how many other foreigners had passed this way. “There was an African man from Cameroon a few years ago, but apart from that, you’re the first foreigner to visit the region.” I said it was my honour.
“We are looking for investment – investors – and maybe you would be interested?” he asked.
“I am just walking through,” I replied. “I am not here looking for investments. But I do think the mountains are beautiful and there should be big potential for tourism in the long term.”
“We think so too,” he said. “There are several local hotel projects under construction, but not high class. There is no foreign investment in them.”
I suggested they should be cautious about developing lower level hotel projects to avoid the kind of damage to the scenery and environment inflicted on other places such as the once beautiful town of Guilin.
“Mr. Yan referred to a six-star hotel idea?” prompted Teacher Xu.
“I think such an idea would be great in theory, though in practice it would require a lot of patience and money and support from the local government. Outside investors are convinced about the future of China tourism, but the Dabie Mountains are very remote, and there would be a reluctance to invest.”
“Thank you for your frankness,” Mr. Cheng said. “Now it is time for dinner.”
“My treat,” I said. “Let us go to a local restaurant and have a simple meal.”
“I have arranged dinner at the best restaurant in town, a banquet for two hundred and fifty RMB,” Teacher Xu announced.
“Wow, two hundred and fifty RMB!” I said. “You have a Grand Hyatt here? I had dinner the other night for just forty RMB including beer.”
“Only forty RMB? Impossible,” Teacher Xu said.
“Our treat,” Mr. Cheng pushed.
“No no,” I said.
“Yes yes,” they said.
It was the old Chinese banquet-hosting ploy of push and pull. I decided to cave in, even though it meant no dinner for Xu Bing. I sensed they had expected me to insist but I wasn’t interested in playing their game – there were more people than planned, and two hundred and fifty RMB for a meal in Chashui was outrageous.
We drove off from the school and thirty seconds later we arrived at the local inn at which I had previously eaten for forty RMB and taken a room. We went upstairs and the toasting began. Everyone drank ‘baijiu’ (the Chinese spirit that’s from eighty to one hundred and twenty proof and is usually made from sorghum grain), except for one of the vice-headmasters who gained my respect by bucking convention and drinking beer out of the baijiu shot glasses.
The drinking culture in China is fascinating. All the strengths and genius of Chinese culture are revealed within it, as well as a few of the shortcomings. But it’s the strengths that predominate.
It is social manipulation on a scale and sophistication far beyond anything Western culture has developed. In the West everyone basically drinks alone. When a group of people gathers together and drink alcohol in Europe or the United States, they may clink glasses and say cheers once at the beginning, but after that each person drinks alone, sipping alcohol when they choose with no regard to what is happening around them. In China, no one drinks alone. Every time the glass is raised it is used to manipulate a relationship in some way. The aim is to toast each person around the table in turn, including a special look and a few words, which provides the chance for manipulation. Of