Shaddap and drink yer oatmeal

10 Jan 2006

Oatmeal beverage

I still get a kick out of seeing what form Western products take in China. Sometimes it’s just a matter of checking out how the company chose to represent its product name in Chinese, but other times the trip across the Pacific also results in other unexpected changes. This is a perfect example. In China instant oatmeal is suddenly a drink? Bizarre.

Carl bought this stuff about a year ago, and it’s still sitting on top of the refrigerator, even though Carl has long since moved out. He said it was good, but he didn’t finish it or take it with him. (Hey Carl, stop by for a visit and some oatmeal beverage any time…)

The Chinese word for “oatmeal” used on the box is 燕麦 (lit. “swallow (bird) wheat”). I know that 麦片 is another name for oatmeal, so I’m kind of curious why marketers might have chosen 燕麦 over 麦片 for their translation. Anyone care to enlighten me?

One thing that hasn’t changed is that in China, too, oatmeal is marketed as a healthy product.

Related: Sinosplice Chinese Products photo set on Flickr


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I know the honey oat bread in Subway in China is 蜂蜜燕麦. Isnt 燕麦 the name for ‘oats’, and then 麦片 is just getting a bit more descriptive- oat meal

  2. I thought oatmeal was healthy…

  3. Would it be the same as mispelling something in English in order to trademark it? Like Weetbix (instead of wheat biscuits)…

  4. My wife calls it 燕麦片, encompassing both of the names. Is the oatmeal in the box the normal flaky stuff? If not, maybe that’s why they dropped 片…

  5. do they have ovaltine or milo there?
    i am thinking ovaltine went from the
    uk to hong kong, but i am not positive.
    anyway, it seems this is trying to
    be something similar.

  6. The way I see it, there seems to be a kind of confusion about the word ‘cereal’. When I have tried to explain what British people have for breakfast, the word ‘cereal’ seems hard to translate, because if you look it up in the dictionary, cereal by itself just means all kinds of grain. When I explain that the cereal we eat for breakfast is crispy and served with cold milk, this seems very strange to most Chinese people, the ‘cold’ part being the hardest to fathom. After all, eating cold things is bad for your stomach, right?!? In my experience ‘燕麦’ generally means oat(meal) porridge and ‘麦片’ means cornflakes, but not always. Have you ever seen the things that look like tiny cornflakes next to the self-serve rice in supermarkets? These are also ‘麦片’, but be warned, these are raw and must be cooked like porridge, as I found out to my distinct displeasure!

  7. Lisa,

    No, both words are in the dictionary; neither is a company coinage.

  8. yes,

    You’re right, some dictionaries do seem to make that oats/oatmeal 燕麦/麦片 distinction, but if that’s the case, Quaker doesn’t seem to be following the convention. The package clearly says “Oatmeal Beverage” is English, yet the Chinese should correspond to “Oat Beverage,” which seems a little strange. That’s why I’m thinking there must be some other factor(s) at play here.

  9. I have oatmeal almost everyday for breakfast and I make it “western” style, that is to say as a porridge one eats with a spoon. However, when my girlfriend’s mom makes it for me she always makes it very soupy, so much so that no spoon is needed. The one time I made it in front of her in the “western” style she thought I didn’t know what I was doing and asked if I wanted her to add any water or milk.

  10. I think 燕麦 only means oat, not oatmeal.
    From what I found on the internet, the reason why 燕麦 has a 燕 in it is because the shape of an oat looks like the tail of a swallow, according to the webpage below. Not sure if it’s true, but it does make sense from the habit of making meanings out of shape or sound if no one knows what it’s called to begin with.

    It says here. “楊才(a guy who’s studied about how to plant oats for 34 years):燕麥啊、是燕子的燕,為什麼是燕子的燕呢,你看它是兩個,張開以後,像燕子的尾巴。像不像燕子的尾巴,它像燕子的尾巴,所以叫燕麥。”

  11. I think 燕麦 just sounds fancier than 麦片,for the latter tells too much,”It’s oatmeal,and it’s in pieces.” While with the word “swallow”,it just sparks some imagination related to those beautiful old-time poems,since swallows are commonly used in old poems as a symble of Spring and stuff.And,you may know,how Chinese are specific about the “意境“ sensation which is really hard to describe.

  12. It has been about 2 years since I last visited your blog. I stumbled on your blog again from Google. Sinosplice has developed into a good resource on China for the outside world. Keep up the good work, John.

  13. Well, 燕麦片 would be THE descriptive name for oatmeal flakes but Chinese like to shorten their nouns (to 2-character words) whenever possible. So 燕麦 and 麦片 both exactly refer to 燕麦片 in this context.

    燕麦 also means the oat grain, which has a number of other names currently in use: 雀麦 (que4mai4 – bird wheat), 野麦 (ye3mai4 – wild wheat), 莜麦 (you2mai4), 油麦 (you2mai4 – oil wheat), 玉麦 (yu4mai4 – jade wheat or corn wheat), and 皮燕麦. Obviously 雀 is related to 燕 in literal meaning while the other words are similar in pronunciation to 燕麦. One could imagine a chain of nomenclature history of 野-玉-莜-油-燕 but there is no record indicating this or the like as being the case. The earliest names in literature was said to be “蘥” and “簛” in Han dynasty literature. The name 雀麦 existed in 《唐本草》, and later the Ming dynasty bible of herbs 《本草纲目》 had “燕麦多为野生,因燕雀所食,故名.”

  14. Gin,

    Wow, that’s a lot more information than I expected. Thanks!

    What about the difference between 燕麦 and 麦片, though? Do you agree with Raymond that 燕麦 sounds more literary? Funny that it doesn’t have the effect of making the food sound like birdseed.

  15. Oatmeal is marketed in North America as healthy. Although it isn’t suggested by the company to drink it.

  16. Yes, 燕麦 sounds more literary, but to me more than that is at play. 燕麦 relates it with the natural grain material and 麦片 cuts out this specificity but reveals the fundamental that it is a processed food. If I were the marketing decision maker, I’d examine today’s fashion trends and say “natural” sells and “processed” sucks. Keep in mind that 燕麦 is or was a wild wheat and thus in today’s concept must be healthy, which 燕麦 actually is, very much. Also if I were introducing oatmeal to a new, “virgin” market, I’d research which of the terms the customers would identify with more keenly, and I believe 燕麦 beats 麦片 in hit frequency in translated literature. 燕麦 is an existing noun whereas 麦片, having left out the source grain specific, might require some teaching before people identify with it. I’d choose 麦片 were I to ride the “anything foreign is good” trend but I think the “healthy and natural” hoax took hold here.

    About the name not sounding like birdfeed, well, something like 燕食 might achieve that effect.

    PS: 燕麦 has long been a food source in China, not in the oatmeal form. Noteworthy is 莜面(油面), a steamed noodle dish very popular in Shanxi and Inner Mongolia.

    PPS: Since the term 麦片 lacks specific reference to the type of grain, an unknowing consumer may think of wheat flakes. I actually remember, vividly from childhood, a soup made of pressed wheat flakes called 麦仁儿 (home manufactured from young wheat grains on a stone 碾子) that had a wonderful texture and taste and even came with a romantic story behind the dish about the great Guangwu Emperor (汉光武大帝), founder of East Han! I’d share the story but it’s irrelevant here.

  17. I’ve been wondering where my box of oatmeal went. Why don’t you break down and try a packet John? It’s a quick and easy way to start your morning.

  18. schtickyrice Says: January 12, 2006 at 1:09 pm

    Since oats (燕麦) are often grown in colder, marginal land unfit for wheat (小麦), maybe there’s a connection to 燕山, and the historical 燕国.

  19. I think the fact that it is an Oatmeal drink might just have to do with the fact that in China the verb for zhou 粥 is he 喝. In the West we eat oatmeal, porridge, etc. In China they drink it. Just like they drink soup, whereas we eat it.

  20. Schtickyrice, in considering that “maybe” connection, one is reminded that 燕 in 燕山 and 燕国 is, has always been, pronounced in the first tone, yan1, unlike the fourth tone yan4 in 燕麦, 燕子, 燕雀, or 燕窝.

    If I could be permitted to go off the topic a bit, looking at the picture of Quaker box John posted, I couldn’t help but wonder why the marketer chose for ole man Quaker a name 桂格 (gui4ge2), instead of maybe a 魁阁 (kui2ge2) or 桂哥 (gui4ge1) or 贵客 (gui4ke4) or even a 闺阁 (gui1ge2). Well, perhaps they did pick it along the same line of thinking: going for a youthful and healthy product image.

  21. Yes, it confuses me. I don’t know how to say porridge oat in chinese. I would like introduce it to my mother. However, i am unable to choose a correct words. What a pity! How delicious they are!

  22. 尿酸患者可否食用燕麦

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