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Looking Up Chinese Characters in an English/Chinese Dictionary

Updated on January 10, 2013

Looking up Chinese characters in a dictionary might seem like an impossible task. For a non-speaker of Chinese it might be difficult to know where to start.

There are tens of thousands of Chinese characters, but you need about three or four thousand to read a newspaper. If you are beginning to learn the language, you will need to know how to look up a character in a dictionary.

Isolate a Radical in Your Character

All Chinese characters are made up of radicals. Radicals are simple components which each have a meaning. Chinese-English dictionaries have a short section at the start called a radical index. The radical index is made up of two parts.

If the character is simple, the whole character might already be the radical. Otherwise, you will have to try and work out which parts of the character are the radical.

  • Look for strokes that seem to go together or you think might be a character on their own.
  • Have a quick look through the radical index for examples.

Count the Strokes

Radicals are made up of strokes. Radicals can range in complexity from one stroke to seventeen strokes. When you have isolated the radical of the character you are looking up, count how many strokes it takes to write the radical.

Examples of one stroke radicals
Examples of one stroke radicals

Find in Part 1 of Radical Index

Part 1 of the Radical Index lists radicals by the number of strokes. If the radical you are looking up has one stroke, look in the one stroke section. If it has two strokes, look in the two stroke section. When you have found the radical in Part 1 of the Index, you should see a number listed next to it. Make a note of this number.

Find in Part 2 of Radical Index

Part 2 of the Radical Index lists all radicals. After each radical, there are characters which include that radical.

  • Look for the radical with the number which you found in Part 1 of the Index.
  • You should be able to find the character that you are looking for in that index.
  • If there are lots of characters, they will be ordered according to the number of strokes in the rest of the character (not the radical).
  • Next to your character is the page number for the main dictionary.

Find Your Character

You now know which page of the main dictionary you need to turn to. You should be able to find your character there. The dictionary will give you the character, a pinyin transcription of the character (for pronunciation) and a definition of the meaning of the character.

A Good Dictionary for Learners of Chinese?

If you are learning Chinese, a good dictionary is an essential tool. The Oxford Chinese Dictionary is good, but there are others.

Looking up Chinese characters can be difficult at first.It can often be tricky to begin with because you pick the wrong radical in the first place, so you end up looking in the wrong place. It helps when you become more familiar with the radicals that you need to identify to find each character.


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    • Wesley Meacham profile image

      Wesley Meacham 5 years ago from Wuhan, China

      Good explination for how to use a Chinese dictionary. I've got to be honest, I hate the things. If you don't have access to the internet though, the dictionaries are all you've got. I much prefer using websites like

      They make it easy because all you have to do is draw the character in the little box and then choose the character on the left that you think is the one you're looking for. You don't have to guess which part is the radical so this is much faster than using a standard dictionary, at least for me anyway.

      Still there are times when we don't have access to a computer and you've done an excellent job of explaining the Eng-Chinese dictionaries. Voting up.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


      You have done a great job in clearly explaining how to look up Chinese characters in a dictionary. Since there are more than 200 radicals, it's important to isolate the correct radical in the character you want to look up. This has sometimes been hard for me when the character has many, many strokes. One should also be aware that strokes, radicals, and characters are written differently in traditional (long form characters) and simplified (short form characters.) Voted up and sharing.

    • kryptowrite profile image

      Rodney C Lawley 5 years ago from Southeastern United States

      I agree. Good topic and would like to learn more.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 5 years ago from New York

      With the Chinese language becoming more popular in this country, this is a timely and helpful hub. In 2010, 670,000 took the Chinese Proficiency Test! (In 2005, it was 117,660)...anyway, this hub is timely as I said before, and I think it will appeal to a large audience. You did a nice job with the layout and explanation.

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.