(Originally published November 2008)


EDIT: see another post I wrote on Thesaurus Linguae Sericae, an excellent new website.

I have a few good dictionaries and know of many useful online dictionaries to utilize when one wants to translate or look up a word from the Classical period of Chinese literature. I’m going to list them here and perhaps someone else who reads this can give me some suggestions. And for the record, I’m am amateur reader of classical Chinese and/but can’t really read modern Chinese. As a result, Chinese-to-Chinese dictionaries are only useful to me if I can make some sense of it. Also I should note, I only work with Traditional Chinese character forms (Fantizi 繁體字).

1) Kangxi Zidian 康熙字典 (1716 C.E.) should be one’s first stop, IMHO. An excellent site, Han Dian 漢典 (www.zdic.net), will give you entries from the Kangxi Zidian (which includes the Erya 爾雅, Shuowen Jiezi 說文解字, Guangyun 廣韻, Yu Pian 玉篇, and others) At the Zdic.net interface I use, I enter a Chinese character and I get access to the Kangxi (the 3rd tab), the Shuowen (the 4th tab), pictures of the graph’s evolution, and some Chinese and English meanings (which aren’t often useful). A typical (multi-tabbed) entry is like this one:

The Shuowen Jiezi is also available elsewhere online (for instance: http://shuowen.chinese99.com/). As is the Kangxi Zidian (for instance: http://www.kangxizidian.com/index2.php).
– Neither the Shuowen nor the Kangxi are translated into English.

2) I always use Axel Schuessler’s Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese, which is a true etymological dictionary, giving phonetic reconstructions of Old (Shanggu Hanyu 上古漢語), Middle (Zhonggu Hanyu 中古漢語), etc. Chinese. It also provides cognates within and without ancient Chinese, English meanings, where one can find examples in the Classical literature, dialect forms, etc. He says his English glosses “are mostly taken from, or are based on, Karlgren’s GSR, Schuessler’s Dictionary of Early Zhou Chinese, Gudai Hanyu Cidian 古代漢語詞典, edited by Chen Fuhua 陳復華 (Beijing 1999) and the Zhongwen Dacidian 中文大辭典” [Morohashi Tetsuji?].” As a bonus he also usually provides William Baxter’s Old Chinese reconstructions. I would also use his A Dictionary of Early Zhou Chinese, but I can’t find one at this time.

3) Charles Muller’s CJKV-English Dictionary is fairly helpful with ancient meanings:
You need to sign in as ‘guest,’ and you can only do 5 searches at one time, or something like that.

4) Lin Yutang’s Dangdai Hanying Cidian 當代漢英詞典 is also one of my favourites, despite the fact that the title refers to modern usage. However, many entries contain “ancient meanings” (AC), and the various meanings, idioms and phrases I have found quite helpful. This dictionary is available online at:

5) I usually access Lin Yutang’s Dangdai Hanying Cidian from another site, Zhendic by Wengu, by clicking “LD.”

At Zhendic, one can search by entering an English word, a Chinese character (not Simplified) or its pinyin transliteration. This is actually my homepage. From Zhendic, one can also view Zhongwen.com’s website on a side frame, which is useful as well. In addition to being able to access Lin Yutang’s dictionary mentioned above, a link to the Unihan database’s entry for the specified word is also provided. Another good feature of Zhendic is there is a search box at the bottom where you can enter a number of Chinese characters at once and get back a full translation of all of them.

6) ChineseEtymology.org (http://www.chineseetymology.org/) is a useful site, (although I remain skeptical about many of the explanations of the graphs. [Whether the graphs themselves are helpful to understanding the words, really depends on the word. Sometimes it is very illuminating, other times the dictionary author is too imaginative. For instance, there are many characters whose phonetic component should not be forced to also provide semantic information about the word’s meaning.] The English meanings given are somewhat useful. The (usually) large number of written versions are great, including Oracle Bone Script, Bronze Script and Seal Script.

7) Gilbert Mattos and Jerry Norman’s Chinese Writing is an English translation of Qui Xigui’s Wenzixue Gaiyao 文字學概要 which has has some essential information on many words/graphs and meaning, which thankfully are all listed in an index.

8 ) The CCDICT is accessible at Chineselanguage.org:

The English meanings are less helpful, but other dialect information and other stuff is sometimes useful.

9) Xu Zhongshu’s 徐中舒 Oracle Bone Script Dictionary (Jiaguwen Zidian 甲骨文字典) is sometimes useful (to me) as well. It contains no English however.

10) Donald Sturgeon’s Chinese Text Project site has a good dictionary, which “merges data from three sources: the Unicode Consortium’s “Unihan” database, the Ancient Text Database, and the CTP Dictionary which is being developed for this site”:

The CTP part of the dictionary lists the various different meanings and readings of a given character and lists exemplary usage for each from the classical literature. Very time-saving! This site is continually growing and expanding. It may turn out to be the best online source.

11) Shuowenjiezi.com is a good Chinese-Chinese website dictionary that has links to many different references, such as the Shuowen Jiezi (of course), the Unihan database, CNS, the Kangxi Zidian 康熙字典 (a scanned image), the Hanyu Dazidian 漢語大字典, Karlgren’s rhyming words, the Yiti Zidian 異體字典 (showing character variants), the Guangyun, Erya, Shiming and Fangyan. It also has examples from Jinwen (bronze script) and Jiaguwen (oracle-bone script).

There’s a Hanyu Zidian online, which seems to be useful. I don’t don’t much about it though.

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I don’t have the oft-mentioned Chinese-English Dictionary by Robert Mathews. I’m not sure it would be more useful than anything I’ve already got/have access to. (Professor Elman of Princeton doesn’t recommend it.)