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How to look up Chinese characters / words in a dictionary

One problem that many beginners struggle with is how to look up Chinese characters or words in a dictionary.

In this post and video, I’m going to show a couple of ways. Luckily, with the technology with we now have, looking up Chinese characters is has become much easier.

The easy way to look up unknown characters in a dictionary

(if you have an iPhone / iPad / Android phone / tablet)

Two things you need to do before you get started:

1) Download Pleco from the app store on your phone or the Google Play store (the basic version is free) and

2) Turn on Chinese handwriting recognition on your phone. Here’s how to do it on the iPhone.

Then you open the Pleco app and switch to the Chinese handwriting input, by clicking on the globe icon in the bottom left hand corner of the screen.

Write the Chinese character you want to look up as neatly as possible (try to get the strokes in the right direction and order, although it should still work even if you don’t get them completely right).

The handwriting recognition should come up with the character you’re trying to type. Just click on the character to select it, and you should see the definition come up in the Pleco app.

There are also options to see what word the character is used in, and to get more information about the character.

The traditional way to look up characters in a dictionary
(that people used with paper dictionaries before there were computers)

I also want to teach you the traditional way to look up characters that you can use with a paper dictionary (just in case you need it).

I have actually barely looked up any characters like this for years, I always use the simpler handwriting recognition method above or directly copy and paste characters into dictionaries to look them up, but I used to have to use it occasionally when I studied Chinese formally and did exams where they only gave you a paper dictionary to work with.

I’m demonstrating this in the video with the Pleco app, but if you use the character reference section at the front of any Chinese dictionary, it works the same.

Here’s what you do. (it’s a little bit complicated, but bear with me)

  1. Find the radical of the character (the main root part of the character, often it is related to the meaning of the character).For example, the radical of 制 would be 刂 (the right hand side), the radical of 减 would be 冫(the left hand side), for 蛋 it would be 虫 (the part on the bottom) or for 薄 it would be 艹 (the part on the top).In some characters it can be easy to spot the radical, and in others it can be quite difficult…
  2. Count the number of strokes in the radical and according to that, locate it in the radical table in your dictionary.
  3. Count the number of strokes in the character other than the radical (if you are not so familiar with character writing and the stroke order, you might have to guess..), look for that number in the table under the correct radical, and locate the character you’re trying to look up.

For example, if you are trying to look up the character 梦, you first locate the radical. In this case, it’s the bottom part of the character, 夕, which has 3 strokes. You then look for radicals with 3 strokes and find 夕.
You then count the number of strokes in the rest of the character, (林 – 8 strokes), then locate the character 梦 in the section for 夕 under where it says 8.

Yes, it can be a bit complicated, and I’m just telling you this for reference really! It should be a bit clearer in the video, and you can always use the easy method instead!

How to look up whole words in the dictionary

This one is much easier. You need to know the Pinyin of the characters in the word you want to look up (how the word is pronounced – if you don’t know that, you would have to look up the characters you don’t know using the method above).

If you are using the Pleco app, you can just type the Pinyin directly into the search box, and if you know the tones of the word, then you can add them to make the result even more accurate.

For example, to look up 樱桃 you can enter ying1tao2 or yingtao.

If you’re using a paper dictionary, the principle is the same, because in most dictionaries the Chinese section is in alphabetical order according to the Pinyin.

Looking up characters and words is an essential skill, and you’ll be doing it a lot as you continue to learn Chinese, to it’s worth learning to do it a bit quicker 🙂

To speed things up, I recommend you stick to electronic dictionaries wherever you are, such as Pleco or for smartphones and tablets, Wenlin and Lingoes for PC or Mac, or LINE Dict, which works online or as an app.