The Chinese-Chinese dictionary survival guide

No, this is not related to anything written by Jorge Luis Borges, but it is related to both dictionaries and labyrinths anyhow. Although there are hard-line extremists who advocate using only the target language when studying languages, I think most people agree that using knowledge from one’s native language is good or indeed necessary. When I started studying Chinese, if I encountered a word I didn’t know what it meant, I looked it up in a Chinese-English dictionary. Anything else would have meant hours of work and, in the long run, madness.

The problem with Chinese-English dictionaries

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Of course, this comes with it’s own problems, since the words in Chinese and English overlap only to a certain degree (much, much less than between Swedish, English or French for instance), but it’s often good enough, at least for understanding. Chinese-English dictionaries are also problematic, because they are seldom accurate enough to be reliable. Using a dictionary in a language you know is like using a bad map, which will allow you to find your way around, but will occasionally lead you astray. This is acceptable as long as merely arriving at the destination is our goal.

Chinese-Chinese dictionaries

Sooner or later, however, every student needs to start using a native dictionary. I almost never use English-Swedish dictionaries (I do sometimes for plants and animals) and I don’t need to, because I understand 99,9% of all definitions in a normal English-English dictionary. That’s not true in Chinese, but after becoming proficient enough in Chinese to read authentic texts, I started to shift from Chinese-English to Chinese-Chinese dictionaries. I think that this situation can be much likened to entering a labyrinths, trying to explore and map unknown territories.

This a post about this adventure and also a guide to how to survive in these convoluted corridors.

Entering the labyrinth

The first time I used a Chinese dictionary, I gave up immediately. Even explanations of simple words I knew well contained many words and characters I had never even seen before. In other words, I stepped into the labyrinth and saw the path ahead of me fork off in more directions than I could count. Picking one at random, I found that the next intersection was equally unfamiliar.

However long I walked in this labyrinth, I would never reach the middle and I would never return to the position where I started. The few points in the maze I knew (words I had studied) were close to useless, because they were too sparse and not connected. This is why I think it’s a waste of time to try to learn Chinese in Chinese for a beginner; you need at least a rough map to refer to in order to survive.

However, I’ve kept eyeing the labyrinth sideways, when it isn’t looking and won’t bite, and I’ve found some things out that make it more interesting. I have tried to enter it many times, using different approaches. After a while, I become well enough equipped to enter it properly and survive in it’s winding corridors.

Different kinds of labyrinths

To start with, it’s not true that all dictionaries are the same, and thus there are many different labyrinths with many different properties. Using a highly specialised dictionary is considerably more difficult than using a more accessible one. Let’s consider these examples if you’re studying English. Let’s look at the word “labyrinth” as defined in two dictionaries, first Merriam-Webster:

1a : a place constructed of or full of intricate passageways and blind alleys
1b : a maze (as in a garden) formed by paths separated by high hedges
2: something extremely complex or tortuous in structure, arrangement, or character : intricacy, perplexity
3: a tortuous anatomical structure; especially : the internal ear or its bony or membranous part
1:a large network of paths or passages which cross each other, making it very difficult to find your way [= maze]
2:something that is very complicated and difficult to understand

I don’t mean to say that either of these entries are extremely hard, but there is a considerable difference in required reading ability between these two dictionaries. To start with, the Merriam-Webster entry contains 38 different words and the Longman only 26. To understand the first entry, you need to already master words such as “intricate”, “blind alley”, “maze”, “tortuous”, “intricacy”, “perplexity” and “membranous”, whereas the second entry require a lot less. An interesting point here is that many of the words I just listed are considerably more difficult than the word we are currently looking up.

Thus, before you even think about entering the labyrinth, try to find out something about it, preferably by asking an advanced learner or a native speaker who can easily judge which dictionary is the most suitable for you (links to online dictionaries are included at the end). I would never ever recommend Merriam-Webster to a beginner (or even fairly advanced students), because the Longman dictionary is good enough for almost all situations. However, sometimes Merriam-Webster is a lot more complete and accurate, making it the preferred choice. It all depends on what knowledge and tools you carry with you into the labyrinth.

This is what we’re going to talk about now.

Surviving gear you will need in the labyrinth

Before entering the labyrinth and starting using Chinese-Chinese dictionaries in my studying, I had acquired some knowledge and tools:

  • A broad vocabulary of around 9000 words. This enabled me to piece together most sentences and identify the words I didn’t know. Without basic vocabulary, finding you way will be like entering a normal maze blindfolded.
  • Knowledge of a high number of individual characters. I went through the 3000 most common Chinese characters before starting. This turned out to be incredibly useful since I usually only need to combine things I know rather than learn something completely from scratch.
  • I have an electronic dictionary or smart phone app which allows me to just tap a screen to go to the next intersection in the labyrinth. Using a browser-based dictionary is a good substitute, but it’s very practical to have a physical device.

I don’t mean to say that you have to have so and so many words, I’m just saying that’s where I started and I still found it quite difficult to only use Chinese-Chinese dictionaries even if I got the point most of the time. I have a hard time understanding those teachers who recommend using Chinese-Chinese dictionaries from the start (or from an intermediate level).

Shortcuts and cheats

Yes, it’s possible to cheat and there are short-cuts. You can study some basic labyrinth architecture, bring your shoddy, native-language map, you can skip some corridors that end up in places you’ve already been and you can try to avoid the less trodden parts of the labyrinth.

  • There are many words which are commonly used in dictionaries but not otherwise, such as “signify”, “indicate”, “describe”, “contrast” and so on. Make sure you take time to learn these words, because they occur so frequently that you can’t really hope to survive without them. In Chinese, it’s sometimes hard because the words also exist in contracted forms (i.e. using only one character instead of two).
  • Decide that after a number of intersections, you escape to a Chinese-English dictionary instead. This means that if you look up a word, you always try to understand that entry in the dictionary in Chinese, but if there are words in that entry that you don’t understand, you look them up in your native tongue. Or you go one step further and only do that for words you don’t understand in the definition of the definition.
  • Skip parallel paths when you encounter them, i.e. don’t learn too many near-synonyms. In the labyrinth, they are only similar paths leading to roughly the same location. You will need to explore these parallel paths later, but if you’re trying to find your way around, don’t bother with them. If you know the component parts of these words, you will often enough be able to guess their meaning.
  • Avoid straying off the illuminated paths in the labyrinth. If you’re using a fairly advanced dictionary, you might leave the more commonly used parts of the language and enter the more dangerous areas where few people go and hideous monsters abound. Here there be Thesauruses! Don’t be stubborn. If you’ve decided to follow advice one above, it’s okay to stop if you peer into a dark corridor and two yellow eyes the size of your fists stare back at you.

Entering the labyrinth with the goal to map everything (i.e. not heeding any of the above advice ) is probably stupid and definitely impossible. A language is simply too big to ever grasp fully (you don’t mean to say that you know everything about your native language, do you?). How you choose to limit exploration is up to you, though.

Wild adventures and treasure hunts

Still, you can go on a rampage now and then if you like. This might be even more fun if you do it with a friend:

  • Name two words and see if you can find a path between the two words. If you pick to very different words, it will be quite hard, but this can of course be made easier by choosing related words.
  • See how long it will take you to follow the definitions of a certain word until you arrive at an intersection where you know all the paths (i.e., keep looking up words until you find a definition you fully understand without having to look anything up).
  • I sometimes just walk randomly, noting down words I find interesting and skipping the rest. This is probably not very good from a learning perspective, but you do stumble upon pretty cool words sometimes.

During these adventures, it’s up to you how detailed a map you want to draw. Sometimes, I’m currently recording almost every unknown passage and intersection, storing and reviewing everything with Anki, but sometimes I only jot down the most important words and skip all near-synonyms or words I can guess. If you encounter words more than once on separate journeys, it’s usually a good idea to look them up. This is one indication of frequency. Most dictionaries won’t tell you how commonly used a word is (links to online dictionaries are included at the end).

Some closing remarks

So, what do you choose, using a badly drawn and inaccurate map, or entering a strange and perhaps dangerous labyrinth, trying to understand how it works? I think that the answer depends much on how much you have studied (i.e. how strange the labyrinth is) and what your goal is. If you’re short of time, running around in labyrinths all day isn’t a good idea, although you might have to do that sooner or later anyway. If you’re happy as long as you learn Chinese, strolling in the labyrinth is excellent.

I personally prefer to have a rough map that contains errors, but lets me find my way to whatever place I’m going, rather than using native dictionaries and not understanding very well what the definitions mean. Neither of these situations is ideal, but for my three couple of years studying Chinese, the rough map was a formidable guide. Still, however much one tries, this kind of map can never be accurate enough, one has to switch to native maps sooner or later.

Questions to the reader

  • What dictionaries do you use?
  • Do you know of beginner-friendly Chinese-Chinese dictionaries?
  • Do you have any additional tips or tricks to share?

Chinese-Chinese dictionaries

There are many dictionaries to choose from and some of them use the same definitions. I’ve included these in the order I find them useful. There are a multitude of hardware dictionaries, too (such as those for electronic devices, which I’ve found to contain easier definitions) or printed editions (which I haven’t included). If you know of more, useful dictionaries, please leave a comment! I would especially interested in easier dictionaries.

汉典 (Zdic)




现代汉语词典 (51240)

Chinese Dictionary

辞洋 (Ciyang)

百度词典 (Baidu)

Memorising dictionaries to boost reading ability

I’ve heard many stories about people in East Asia who try to learn English by memorising dictionaries. Even if it’s true that some people actually do that, I think this somewhat puzzling technique isn’t common in the West. Hearing such stories, it’s easy to shake one’s head and wonder how someone could be so stupid as to think that memorising dictionaries is the same as learning a language.

Then it may come as a surprise that a couple of years ago I spent roughly one hundred hours spread out over six weeks learning all the characters in the Far East 3000 Chinese Characters Dictionary. Of course, I knew most of them already, but I learnt a considerable amount of new words as well. This article is not about this particular thing or about this dictionary. Any dictionary (or website) based on frequently use characters and/or words will be fine. If you don’t have a book already, I suggest using this online list.

I’ll try to explain why I think that going through such lists is an excellent idea if you do it right and at the right time, and I will also share some thoughts on how to do this without running into some of the problems I did. I never expected this, but the day has come when I actually recommend other people to memorise a dictionary!

Please note that you should only do something like this if you already know the majority of words in the list you want to study. If you use the online list I provided above, you can chose your own number. If you’ve only studied for a year, choose the 1000 most commonly used characters. If you studied for years, go for all 3000. It’s up to you, but I would rather aim slightly too low than too high.

Learning a dictionary isn’t necessarily stupid

First things first, why would memorising a dictionary be a good idea? I’ve argued before that Chinese is a language consisting of many building blocks (see my articles about building a toolkit) and rather than learning a character as a whole, it’s fruitful to learn its composition as well. The same goes for words in Chinese (words consisting of more than one character). Making sure that you know the 3000 most common characters, you gain access to a huge number of new words.

By access I mean:

  • You can guess the meaning of a compound word because you know the characters in it
  • You can learn new words more easily, because you know the component characters already

I have argued elsewhere that vocabulary is not only king, but god emperor as well. If you don’t feel convinced that vocabulary is extremely important, you should check my article about the importance of knowing many words.

Let’s look closer at above-mentioned benefits. The first one might be either useless or invaluable depending on the word. Chinese consists of lots synonym compounds (i.e. words that consist of two characters which mean the same thing, such as 快捷 or 馈赠 (饋贈)) and if you know both the characters, you can be pretty sure about what the word means, whereas if you only know one, the meaning could be anything. This is an example of where your toolkit allows you to learn words for free, so to speak.

Moreover, there are numerous examples where there are more than one similar way of saying something. For instance, compare 时限 (時限), 期限 and 年限, which are really easy to distinguish if you know what the individual characters mean, but might cause trouble if you don’t. There are of course more examples, but I think this is enough to illustrate the point.

Now, let’s look at a graph I think some of you have seen before:

The picture is from Patrick Zein’s excellent introduction to Chinese (in Swedish, sorry). On the X-axis is number of characters one knows and on the Y-axis is the expected ability to understand written Chinese, assuming that grammar and character combinations are not a problem (which they of course are, but that’s not the issue here).

What does this graph tell us? Basically, it shows that if we know 3000 characters, we will very rarely come upon characters we don’t know when we read normal Chinese text, provided that we know the correct 3000 characters. If you’ve spent lots of time learning characters that aren’t within the 3000 most common, referring to this graph is wrong.

Using frequency lists to plug holes and make your foundation more solid

Going through lists of words based on frequency allows you to learn characters you should know (because they are common) but have missed because your textbook or teacher hasn’t presented them yet. This means that you broaden your base, including more words that lie outside your textbook and your course. This provides you with a more solid foundation which you can later use to learn more words and understand spoken and written Chinese with more ease.

Suggestions and tips

After having said all this, I’d still like to say that memorising dictionaries is quite stupid. Of course, you shouldn’t just try to commit everything to memory by rote learning, you should use all the clever hacks I talk about in other articles. You use a frequency list to find commonly used words and to gain information about these words. However, this is not enough. Here is some more advice for you:

  • Be careful, sometimes you just think you know what a character means because it’s so common, but in fact it means something completely different when it’s on its own. Check all characters carefully once. This will either allow you to find flaws in your knowledge, or, if no such flaws are found, it will increase your confidence.
  • Learn at least one example word where a given character appears, also make a note of this word in connection with the single character so that when you review it, you always see it in context. Learning words in complete isolation is bad for a number of reasons.
  • Don’t feel forced to use the example words in the book. Some dictionaries provide examples that are extremely rare that some native speakers have never heard of. Dictionaries tend to focus on accuracy which isn’t necessarily a good idea. Use HanziCraft (frequency sorting at the bottom).
  • Don’t learn the words in alphabetical order, starting from page one and going through the book, because it will be extremely hard to distinguish between one hundred different “shi”. A better way would be to first learn the first character on every page, then the next time learn the second character on every page.
  • Spread it out! Even if you’ve studied for a while, 3000 characters will take a while to go through (100 hours in my case). I managed this by portioning it out, going through a dozen characters at a time whenever I had some time to spare.

Some final words

Conclusively, memorising dictionaries is not a very good idea in general, but I think there is some merit in studying frequency lists, thus making sure you know characters and/or words you really should know. When I did this, I felt that the 3000 characters resulted in a quantum leap in reading comprehension. This will not take care of reading speed, complex grammar or other problems associated with reading ability, but it will enable you to understand many texts you would otherwise have been completely unable to decipher. More importantly, it will make it a lot easier for you to learn more later, given that you now have more building blocks and tools to understand and analyse the language you are learning!