In China, it is usually the host who sits at the head of the round table facing the door. This is the most important position. He or she announces that the dinner begins. The person sitting to the right of the host is the most important guest, and the person to the left is second most important guest. The further guests sit from the host, the less important they are.
Holding a glass filled (usually) with alcohol, the host will say a few words to welcome the honored guests. The host then welcomes everyone and says, “Let’s have the first drink.” Each guest then thanks the host and drinks. After two minutes of free talking and eating, the host holds the toasting glass higher and says, “Let’s drink the second time.” Everyone holds their glasses higher and they again drink together. After two toasts with everyone, people may toast each other more freely. But you must always begin by individually toasting the most important guest first. The host may then toast the other guests one by one following their sitting order or may chose to toast freely. The host may remain sitting in his or her chair or move around the table for toasting. Sometimes joking takes place. For example, someone giving a toast may say, “I come to you by a taxi to drink with you!” Usually, when toasting, everyone tries their best to hold their glass lower than others to show their humility.
One must be aware of several things to properly toast:
1. The relative status of those at the table (indicated by where they sit), and who the host is
2. What one is toasting with
3. How formal the dinner is
To begin the dinner, the host (at the “head” of the round table) toasts 2-3 times (depending on how formal the dinner is). It is a general toast that everyone takes part in. The toast begins after at least 4 dishes are present on the turntable in the middle of the table. No one else toasts before the host completes the opening toasts to begin the meal.
In most cases, Moutai is poured into a small individual pitcher, and a very small goblet is filled with the pitcher. The Moutai is about 42% alcohol. Toasting can also be done with wine (more often ok for women), beer (very weak – 2.5% alcohol), or non-alcoholic drinks. If Moutai is not used, the small pitcher and goblet need not be used.
The purpose of most toasts is to recognize and honor someone. The toast need not (and usually doesn’t) have a speech attached to it – making the toast itself is often enough. In many cases, those of lower status will get up and go around the table to someone of higher status (or go to a guest, who is automatically higher status). The glass is held out with both hands, indicating an offer to toast. Glasses are not raised as in the West – the gesture should be of lowering the glass, indicating one’s own lower status compared to the other person. This might result in both people lowering their glasses, and it might also result in one person pushing the other person’s glass up, indicating that that person is more important than you are and should be honored.
The whole glass is drained, if the goblet is being used (this doesn’t happen with a full glass of wine). The glass is often tipped to the side to show that the whole glass has been drained, as not drinking the whole of a small goblet could be seen as an insult. There is also bowing involved, and acceptance of the honor given by each to the other.
There can be a more macho component of toasting also. Sometimes someone can challenge someone else to “bottom’s up”. That means that you drink from the small pitcher instead of the goblet, and drain it. You might also hold it sideways above your head and trace a circle over your head, indicating that you drank the whole thing.
Toasts happen throughout the meal – it does not just occur at one particular time. So, people are constantly getting up to toast each other. If you are a guest, someone might ensure that your pitcher or wine glass is always full. It is entirely possible to end up drinking too much, if you are not paying attention.
Meals often have an end point that is as clear as the starting point. The host will declare the meal over, and people will break up and head out. It seemed to me that leaving without finishing up what was in the pitcher was bad manners (at least, I saw that most pitchers and glasses were empty when everyone left).
On my friend’s birthday I toast my friend by saying “wan chi ru yi!” or in English “Every wish you make will be true!” Ying Tang
Toasting is context specific. I give a very different toast at a bachelor party compared to the wedding.