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‘Tchin tchin’, ‘santé’, eye contact: The rituals of French apéros

From a Mandarin phrase to mediaeval beliefs, we look back through the history of this evening tradition

Would you go ‘tchin tchin’ or ‘santé’? Pic: Dasha Petrenko / Shutterstock

French apéros are a long-standing tradition in which friends get together to share a drink (usually alcoholic) and snacks in the late afternoon or early evening. This occasion also comes with its own set of rituals and vocabulary. 

Here we look at some of those, from ‘tchin tchin’ to ‘santé’ to the mandatory eye contact while clinking glasses, explaining where they come from and why they are still in place today. 

‘Tchin tchin’ and ‘santé’

French people also tend to say ‘tchin tchin’ when they toast over a glass of alcohol. 

The tradition dates back to 1900, when French soldiers stationed in Guangzhou, China, noticed that Chinese people said ‘tsing tsing’ as a toast before drinking alcohol. 

The soldiers brought this custom back to France with them and it quickly spread, although it is rarely used in China today.

The saying actually means ‘please, be my guest’ in Chinese and is used as a greeting in the Canton region of China, according to the Centre national de ressources textuelles et lexicales, a French organisation which publishes linguistic data and information online.

The Chinese equivalent to the French ‘tchin tchin’ is ‘Gānbēi’.

Read more: Map: our tour of France by local apéritif

Some say that the term ‘tchin tchin’ is associated with the sound of glasses clinking but no historians or writings have suggested or supported that claim.

French people sometimes use ‘santé’, a term that originated during the Middle Ages, when people thought alcohol had health benefits and cleansed the body. 

Poisoning fears

Now onto the action of clinking glasses while exclaiming ‘tchin tchin’ or ‘santé.’

The tradition dates back, again, to the Middle Ages. 

People would knock their cups together with more force then – as tankards were much bigger and made out of wood so that they could sustain heavy collisions – to splash some of the beverage onto their companion’s in case of poisoning.

Likewise, people would stare into the eyes of the people with them as an honest promise that, if the drink was poisoned, they were not the culprit. 

People who shied away from looking at their drinking partner, perhaps to check that none of their drink had splashed into their cup, would automatically be suspected of having poisoned the liquid. 

Similar to the fear of poisoning, but not related to alcohol in this instance, was the obligation to lay your hands on the table, as keeping them out of sight might suggest that a person was ready to brandish a dagger or sword. 

The significance of the staring tradition has changed since this time and people do not clink their glasses as heavily now.

Today, French people stare into the eyes of their companion for fear that – if they do not – they will have seven years’ bad sex. 

The origin of this superstition is hard to trace, but has been found in Spain as well. 

Cheersing with a glass of water is believed to create the same predicament.

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