Adding Oil: The Origins of 加油 (jiāyóu)

“Add Oil!” or “加油” (jiāyóu) is one of the most well-known phrases you’ll hear when visiting or living in Taiwan. But where does it come from?


If you’ve lived in Taiwan for as long as I have (over a decade now!), then you’re undoubtedly familiar with the phrase 加油, or jiāyóu. Literally translated as “Add Oil!”, the phrase 加油 is used to spur on or encourage perseverance.

加油 can be used in many settings. Sports fans may shout it to encourage their sports team or favorite athlete. Teachers may say it to give courage to their students right before an important test. Colleagues at work use the term to spur on each other when an important deadline is coming up. Or you can use the term to give courage to a friend during a difficult period. You can even shout it to your cat when they’re playing fiercely with a toy.

Last week, I used the phrase with a (non-Taiwanese) friend. He asked where the term comes from. I had no idea. Fortunately, a 2012 paper discusses the semantic evolution of the term and helps answer the question.

Original Meaning of 加油

The original meaning of 加油 is straightforward.

“加” doesn’t have a fascinating origin. Initially, it referred to falsely accusing, lying, or exaggerating a story. However, the usage was later extended to mean adding, supplementing, applying, or exceeding something. As an adverb, it can also mean “more.”

On the other hand, interestingly, “油” originally referred to an ancient river’s name. The river was west of present-day Songzi County (松滋市), Hubei, Central China. It flowed southeast to Gongan County (公安县), where it entered the Yangtze (長江) river. Later, the term was used to symbolize fats from animals or plants. Over time, it became a generic term for mineral hydrocarbon mixtures, such as gasoline.

In ancient Chinese texts, the term 加油 was used literally as “adding oil” as early as the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE). However, its modern meaning of encouragement didn’t appear until the early 20th Century.

Tsinghua University Cafeteria Slang

To uncover the roots of the modern meaning and use of “加油” (“jiāyóu”), we need to go back to the historic grounds of the Tsinghua University (清華大學), founded in 1911 and formerly known as Tsinghua School (清華學堂).

The story of the modern use of 加油 begins sometime in the early 1920s. While there is no official documentation on the origins of the use of 加油 as a slang, contemporary sources such as student diaries and school newspapers mention several uses of 加油.

Initially, the term was used in the traditional sense of “adding oil” in the school cafeteria when students would complain there was not enough sesame oil on their vegetables. “加油” thus meant adding more sesame oil. It appears that enough students asked for more sesame oil, so 加足 became a widely known and used phrase around the campus.

From Cafeteria Slang to Sports Cheer

Then, as the story goes, someone (for whatever reason) shouted the term during a school sports event. This unintentional chant struck a chord across the campus, and 加油 became Tsinghua’s signature cheer. The cry eventually spread to national sporting events and became synonymous with encouraging sports athletes “to put in more effort.”

One student named 孙瑜 (Sūn yú), who was at Tsinghua from 1919 to 1923, mentions in his memoirs that the school held an autumn sports meeting in 1922. His classmates encouraged him to join the 100-meter race. Sun Yu writes that while he wanted desperately to “加油,” unfortunately, he didn’t have any “油” left to “加.”

When later remembering the event, Sun Yu mentioned that he knew what 加油 meant but implied that it wasn’t a commonly known term. So often, the term would have to be explained, even in sports contexts.

The official documentation of this shift from a cafeteria expression to an athletic encouragement surfaced in Tsinghua’s magazine. In a 1924 issue, a piece mentioned athletes who had qualified for special cafeteria privileges due to their sporting achievements. They were said to have “加足了油” (“Jiā zúle yóu”), meaning they “added enough oil” to earn the special treatment.

Another 1924 issue explicitly used “天天加油” (tiāntiān jiāyóu), meaning “every day add oil,” as a synonym for continuous training, showcasing the evolving interpretation of “加油” to signify persistent effort.

From Sports to Broader Public

Because of its simplicity and clarity, the term “加油” gained popularity beyond the sports sphere at the Tsinghua campus.

In addition, at that time, Tsinghua University often participated in off-campus regional or national sports meetings. Furthermore, the Tsinghua teams were pretty good. So, the Tsinghua “加油” sports cheers started spreading around the country.

From the 1930s onwards, “加油” was widely used as a cheering slogan in various sports competitions nationwide. Furthermore, the term started spreading internationally. It has even traveled across the ocean with Chinese fans. It has become a slogan to encourage and cheer for Chinese athletes at foreign events. 

One such story is described in an August 5, 1948, Ta Kung Pao (大公報) newspaper article covering the Chinese athletes’ performance during the 1948 Summer Olympics in London.

At the Olympics, the Republic of China basketball team competed against Belgium, Chile, Iraq, the Philippines, and South Korea in the group stages of the tournament. The action took place in the Harringay Arena in London.

1948 Summer Olympics Chinese basketball team

On August 4, China suffered a 51-32 defeat against the Philippines, despite, as the newspaper writes:

“Chinese fans and foreign spectators still did not give up. They “shouted ‘Come on, China’! The sound shook the entire Harringay Stadium. This cry was indeed true. Effectively, China’s five generals control the ball and interact with each other steadily and quickly.”

中国加油”, 啦啦队呐喊助威, 李世侨回天有术[N]. 大公报(香港版), 1948-08-05(6)

By the late 1930s, the usage of “加油” evolved beyond sports contexts, branching into broader domains of encouragement within society. Its transformation from a sports cheer to a motivational phrase for various scenarios became evident in publications like “Nankai University Weekly,” where “结婚加油” (“加油” for marriage) was used to encourage a bride during her dressing up, or in articles discussing national efforts, urging people to 加油 for the country’s betterment.

Final Note

For this blog post, I explored the intriguing etymological journey of the Chinese term “加油” (“jiāyóu”). Originating in the middle of the first Century as simply a means to “add oil,” it has transformed through the Tsinghua University cafeteria and sports events to become the go-to phrase for encouragement in the streets of Taipei, Taiwan.