The Italian way of saying “cheers,” made famous during the coronavirus lockdown earlier this year, likely originated from China.
As people around the world gather (most likely virtually) to bid farewell to a year we’d rather forget, there will be a lot of toasting. In Germany, you might hear prost as the glasses clink. In Spanish, the word is salud.
In France and Italy, the toast of choice is cin cin. Earlier this year, a video of a man raising a glass to himself while under coronavirus lockdown in northern Italy racked up millions of views. His toast: cin cin.
The phrase’s origins can actually be traced back to China, where its derivative, qingqing 青青, was once used as a toast.
Qingqing translates to “please please” and was introduced to the Italian language at the end of the 17th century, according to Federico Masini, a professor of Chinese language and literature at the Sapienza University of Rome.
Merchants, missionaries, and adventurers returning from Asia would share etiquette they had learned. Qingqing was likely adopted because of its resemblance to the sound of clinking glasses.
How cin cin became Italy’s favorite toast
The first mention of cin cin, according to Masini, is in a book titled Report on China published by Lorenzo Magalotti in Florence in 1666.
“The author recounts a colorful conversation with an Austrian Jesuit missionary priest returning from China,” Masini says, “who told him about queer aspects of Chinese culture, including ... the way people toasted by using a specific word.”
In his book, Magalotti seems fascinated by the toasting ceremony. The priest describes how during a banquet, a Chinese host’s head butler would say the word zin to invite the guests seated at the table to jointly raise their glasses and toast together.
All invitees would reply vigorously, repeating the invitation with “zin zin zin zin zin.” They said it to one another before eating and drinking.
The ceremony was repeated before each course. The toast had to be said in unison, and it was considered bad manners if a guest started feasting without waiting for the formal invitation, Magalotti writes.
Above all, Chinese etiquette required that the shot of alcohol be downed and the empty glass shown to everyone.
Magalotti’s book enjoyed success across Europe and provided readers with vivid descriptions of Chinese habits at a time when East Asia was perceived as a distant and complex cultural universe.
It was picked up by other authors and became part of the Italian literary canon, helping spread and transform qingqing into the more familiar cin cin, which became part of everyday Italian speech, Masini says.
It’s possible the qingqing toast spread from Italy to France, Masini adds, or it might have traveled directly from China by other means.
According to France’s National Center for Textual and Lexical Resources, the French toast tchin-tchin comes from the term tsing tsing in Chinese Pidgin English, an English adaptation of Cantonese spoken in Guangzhou in the 1600s.
Nowadays, Chinese people say ganbei, literally “dry cup,” before finishing the drink in one gulp to show full appreciation for the toast. Qingqing is more often used when Chinese people invite others to sit down or eat at a banquet rather than for the actual toast.
The expression is especially used in formal situations, when people invite guests to participate in certain activities, not just meals, says Amy Liu, who teaches business Chinese at the University of Michigan.
“And in the Chinese language, we like to quickly repeat the same word to show sincerity and/or hospitality,” says Liu, hence the repetitive qingqing.
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.