How to Use a Chinese Dictionary

Learning how to use a Chinese dictionary initially seems difficult.

In a language that uses an alphabet (like English, French or German) we can simply look up words in alphabetical order. We just need to now the order of the alphabet which, thankfully, in most European languages mirrors the a,b,c,d we learn in English.

In Chinese though we have to work out how to look up a character. This is a much trickier proposition. Indeed using a paper dictionary in Chinese is difficult.

The basic process requires knowing the main radical (“piece”) of the character and then counting the remaining strokes. For example 好 has the 女 radical + 3 additional strokes (the three strokes of 子). We’d then look in the 女 + 3 section of the dictionary to find 好.

Honestly, it’s a pain. In fact it is so challenging that Chinese school children have competition to see who can find characters the fastest in a dictionary! When something is tricky enough to become a competitive sport then it’s probably a beginner probably doesn’t want to concern themselves too much with!

Getting started in Chinese is hard enough. We already have new pronunciation, tones and the characters to deal with. Let’s not add to the early “hump” by torturing ourselves with a paper based dictionary.

Making life easier: Digital Dictionaries

Let’s make life a little easier and give ourselves more time to focus on communicating in Chinese rather than poring through a dictionary!

Electronic dictionaries make looking up Chinese much. much easier.

If you are using a computer to look up characters then the website and Pin Pin Dictionary are your friends. They are both free and will cover all of your desktop computer-based needs.

Pin Pin Dictionary

However, ideally you need a dictionary that you can look up characters and words with on-the-fly. Hands-down the best mobile (iPhone and Android) dictionary is Pleco.


The basic Pleco dictionary is free and there are a number of upgrades to extend Pleco’s functionality. The upgrades seem expensive but when compared to the cost of a paper based dictionary (rather than comparing the $0.99 app pricing!) then the value is clearer.

Pleco is the only Chinese app I use on a daily basis and I can’t recommend it enough. I’m not the only one who raves about Pleco though. In this survey of the top Chinese language learning bloggers/websites Pleco comes out as a clear “must-have”: How to Learn Chinese: 50+ Top Bloggers tell You How

Once you have Pleco how do you actually go about looking up a character?

There are a couple of different situations here:

1. You know the English and want to find the Chinese

2. You know the Chinese pronunciation

3. You only know the Chinese character

English to Chinese

In the first case, where you know the English, looking up characters is easy. You simply type in the English and Pleco will spit out Chinese words and characters that match.

One problem here is that Chinese often has many characters for each English word. You’ll see this reduplication a lot in Chinese and it’s hard to tell which Chinese character you should be using. The dictionary will tell you all of the characters that translate to the English concept but this will include classical usage, literary usage, spoken usage, informal slang usage etc. etc. This makes it tricky to tell which characters to use.

You could look up the frequency (ie. how “common” the character is) in a tool like but honestly this is a little too much trouble and the results are often inaccurate. The best way to check which character to use is to…you guessed it…ask a native Chinese speaker!

Use HelloTalk or iTalki or some other free service to connect with a speaking partner. A native will be able to guide you to the correct characters in seconds.

Chinese pronunciation to character

The second case is quite simple. This is where you’ve heard a word in speech and want to look up and check which characters are being used in this particular word.

To do so you can search in Pleco using pinyin. If you heard 你好 nǐhǎo and wanted to check the characters you can simply type nihao into Pleco and you’ll get what you are looking for.

If you can give tone information then Pleco will be able to narrow down the character results. To do this tap the numbers at the top of the Pleco keyboard to add tone markers. nǐhǎo would therefore be typed as ni3hao3. This sort of search will remove all the other words that have different tones.

Chinese character only

This is the most interesting function of digital dictionaries. Let’s say you see a new item on a Chinese menu and don’t know its meaning or how to pronounce it. What do you do?

A few years ago, unless you were carrying around your paper dictionary, you’d be in trouble.

Now you can whip out Pleco and draw the character on screen using your finger tip.

To do so you need the handwriting recognizing module. At the time of writing the small version is free and the full-screen version is a paid add-on. You can also use your phone’s built in handwriting recognition if you have your phone set up for Chinese characters. Here’s an article about doing just that if you have not yet.

Even if you don’t know the stroke order and the character looks an absolute mess chances are Pleco will guess which character you mean. Pleco will present a number of different options that it thinks you are writing and you just pick out the matching character to get its dictionary entry.

One very nice (paid) addition is the OCR or optical character recognition. This turns your phone’s camera into a Chinese character reader. You capture the Chinese characters in your viewfinder and Pleco will automatically translate what it sees. It’s pretty magical and it’s better to see in action rather than read my explanation. Here’s an old official video from Pleco – the features are actually more robust and user friendly now so think this + 100% extra magic sauce:

Summing Up

You can save hours of your life by using a digital rather than a paper based Chinese dictionary. With those saved hours you can spend more time using and enjoying the Chinese language.

My earliest and most oft-repeated advice to early beginners is to download Pleco and learn how to use it ASAP. You’ll use it countless times over your Chinese learning journey and be thankful that you got it so early!

Image source: with added text-overlay. Share-a-like Creative Commons.