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The Oxford Chinese Dictionary is online!

Chinese characters

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Oxford University Press is excited to announce the online launch of the Oxford Chinese Dictionary, a landmark publication that has already established itself as the must-have printed companion of students and teachers of Chinese around the world, since it was published in 2010.

But how is a Chinese dictionary made?

Many of us know that there are thousands of Chinese characters – experts put the figure at around fifty thousand – but those who are new to Chinese can find it difficult to imagine how these characters are organized on the dictionary page.

How to look up a Chinese character

Most modern Chinese dictionaries and Chinese dictionaries sold to English speakers are organized alphabetically by Pinyin pronunciation, with a radical-based character index in a section at the front.

Searching by Pinyin

Pinyin is the official romanization system for transcribing Chinese characters. If you know the pronunciation of the character you are searching for and you are familiar with its Pinyin spelling, then looking the character up is very straightforward: you open the dictionary, which is ordered alphabetically, and find the word you are looking for under the first romanized letter of the character’s Pinyin.

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Searching by radical

Here’s the tricky – but interesting bit. If you don’t know the pronunciation of the character you are searching for you will need to search for it in the radical index. Radicals are the basic component of every Chinese character.

You will find the radical for the character you are searching for either on the left, right, top, base, or outside of the character. The radical will give you an indication of the meaning of the character or the context in which it is used.

The radical 火 (Pinyin: huǒ), meaning ‘fire’, resembles the flames that it represents. It can carry additional meanings related to the heat of fire, such as burning, anger, and passion. In the character below, 火 can be found on the left of the character:

灴 (Pinyin: hóng) means ‘to bake’, ‘to roast’, or ‘to dry by a fire’

火 can also be written as four short strokes 灬, which always appear at the base of a character. For example:

焦 (Pinyin: jiāo) means ‘burnt’ or ‘scorched’, and can also mean ‘worried’ or ‘anxious’.

In Chinese dictionaries the index of radicals is organized according to the number of written strokes in the radical. The radical 火 contains four strokes, and as such would be listed in the radical index under radicals containing four strokes.

Once you have identified the basic component of the character you want to look up, counted the number of strokes in it, and located it in the list of radicals, you will need to make a count of the remaining number of strokes in the character, and search for the one you’re looking for in the list supplied under the radical. A page number will be provided next to the character searched.

In the examples above, there are three remaining strokes in the character 灴 (Pinyin: hóng) and eight remaining strokes in the character 焦 (Pinyin: jiāo).

Remembering Chinese characters

Knowledge of the radical look-up system is essential for learners of Chinese. Radicals are the components of Chinese characters that you will see repeated time and again. Learning how characters subdivide into parts and studying the individual meanings of radicals helps you to discover the connections between similar categories of words.

As familiarity with radicals makes it easier for you to begin to unpick possible meanings, so it will also help you to make sense of characters and to remember them.

For example, in the character 休 (Pinyin: xiū) meaning ‘to rest’, the radical on the left, 亻, means ‘person’, and the part on the right, 木, means ‘wood’ or ‘tree’. Understanding the meaning of the two parts, a story emerges of a person leaning against a tree to have a rest.

Chinese characters and Chinese popular thinkingLearning Chinese characters can also give some insights into Chinese culture and popular thinking. For example, the Chinese character for ‘good’ is 好 (Pinyin: hǎo).

好 is comprised of the radical 女, meaning ‘female’ or ‘daughter’ and 子, meaning ‘child’ or ‘son’.

In this particular context, 女 means daughter and 子 means son. In Chinese popular thinking, it is considered a blessing to have two children, a boy and a girl. As such, a daughter and a son makes for good.

Learning Chinese

The character 学 (Pinyin: xué), meaning ‘to study’, contains the radical 子 which, as we’ve just seen, means  ‘child’ or ‘son’. In this case the character resembles a child studying beneath a roof.

Of course anybody can study Chinese – you don’t need to be a child, and you don’t even need a roof. The one thing you will need, however, is a good Chinese dictionary. When you next pick one up or go online, you should now have an idea where to start.

Good luck, or as the Chinese say, 加油 (literally, add oil)!

To see Chinese characters correctly you may need to install Asian language fonts – please visit Microsoft for information on how to enable East Asian languages for Windows. (If you have Windows XP, you may simply need to adjust the settings at the Control Panel under Regional and Language Options.)

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.