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One of the Trickiest Metaphors When Learning Mandarin: Add oil!

Mar. 16, 2020

Chinese General single

Every language and culture has their own metaphors, and often these are shared. When studying Mandarin you’ll learn many colorful and creative metaphors as well as their cultural origins and significance.

Dating back 5,000 years Chinese culture has a plethora of metaphors, some new and some old. Figurative language doesn’t always pass through a language barrier intact and can often be confusing. Today we’ll take a moment to explore the phrase “加油 (jiāyóu) Add oil”. “加油 (jiāyóu) Add oil” is considered one of the, if not the hardest of metaphors to explain through the language and cultural barrier.

Chinese General single

Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “Jiayou!” in Mandarin or “Ga yao!” in Cantonese. It seems strange when translated to English, “Add oil!”.

Just imagine your grade school teacher telling you “Add oil!” before this week’s spelling test. It wouldn’t make any sense at all. This is because the phrase is a metaphor, similar to “raining cats and dogs”. The phrase “加油 (jiāyóu) Add oil” can be traced back to 1964. Where it is widely believed to have originated at the Macau Grand Prix. However others claim that the phrase was often spoken by a Hong Kong surgeon who would jokingly say to his assistant “Add oil! Add oil!” to encourage her.

Regardless of which is correct it was a figurative phrase that meant to step on the accelerator of an automobile or to inject fuel into a tank. As cars became more common people began to co-opt the phrase to incite or encourage others at sporting events and competitions. The trend continued until “Add oil!” was being used in an unimaginable number of different situations and contexts. So much so that “加油 (jiāyóu) ” became something that people would say to express general cheer and happiness.

Chinese General single

In 21st century China one can hear this phrase anywhere in the country, especially given the popularity of sports, such as basketball and soccer. One can even hear it before almost every exam taken by any age of student, or a teacher encouraging a student, and basketball players shouting enthusiastically to their teammates are some examples.

Xiǎo huá, jiāyóu!

Come on, Xiao Hua!

Wǒmen yào jiāyóu g àn!

We can work harder!

It’s also become an anthem for boosting moral amid a crisis. Most recently in Wuhan during the Covid-19 epidemic where one person would yell “Wuhan!” as loud as the could from their balcony and in unison the entire neighborhood would reply at the top of their voices “add oil” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2018. Making the leap from Chinglish to English, just as it had made the much closer hop from Cantonese to Mandarin decades ago.

You Are Such a “柠檬精 (Níngméng Jīng)”! Am I a Lemon?

HSK 3 quiz

According to the context, what does “加油” mean in these sentences below?

1. 大家都在给他们喜欢的参赛者们加油。 ____

2. 所有飞机飞行前都必须加油。 ____

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