If you’ve been following the Olympics from Chinese television, or watched a few games with your Chinese friends, you’ve probably heard the Chinese exclaim “jiāyóu” (加油) more than once. Most obvious are the Chinese Fans at the Stadium especially when their Teams are leading on the scoreboard. At the time, maybe you thought they were just yelling at the TV, or that it’s just something people yell when they’re excited.
Then, you were on WeChat, telling someone how tired you are on Monday morning because of all the work you had to do over the weekend—and you’re still not finished! Your sympathetic friend sends you the characters 加油 (jiāyóu) with a fist emoticon.
Being the studious Chinese learner you are, you look it up in Pleco and your handy Chinese dictionary, where you learned that the term means “to add gasoline to a vehicle”. Your Chinese friends confirm that indeed, you can jiāyóu (add gasoline) at "jiā yóu zhan" (gas station)—so why are they yelling at Olympic athletes to add gasoline? Is there any connection between boosting the morale of an athlete and the phenomenon above? Students on our China Internship and Learn Chinese Program Participants will be able to tell the meaning or even understand the history behind the phrase.
The literal translation can be a little bit confusing at first, but it isn’t far-fetched. Jiāyóu does mean “to add fuel”, which could mean you should refuel to keep going. Or, it could be translated as “to add oil”, as in adding oil to a flame to keep it burning or to strengthen it.
Alright, so now that we know its literal meaning, what does jiāyóu really mean?
Jia you can be used as a cheer, or a form of encouragement:
- “Go! Go! Go!”
- “Don’t give up!”
- “Do your best!”
- “Good luck!”
- “Go, team, go!”
- “Come on!”
- “Hang in there!”
- “I’m rooting for you!”
- “More power to you!”
- “Keep it up!”
It can also be used with a more negative meaning in a sentence, such as: “Look at your grades this semester! You should jiāyóu” where it can be replaced with “put in more effort” or “try harder”.
As far as context goes, jiāyóu can be used outside the athletic or achievement context, such as when your friend has an unrequited love, or in emotional situations where you want to show a friend they have your support. Then it can also mean, “I’m behind you”, “I think what you’re doing is worth all your effort”, “You have my blessings”, or “I look forward to seeing your success”.
Asian countries seem to all have their own version of jiāyóu, where in Japan they use the verb 頑張る ganbaru (“Ganbatte!”) and in South Korea they say “Aja aja fighting!” (or “fighting!” for short). Perhaps it’s up to us to create an English equivalent!