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How to use a Chinese dictionary

[ << The radicals : part 12 ] [ Table of contents ] [ Characters index >>]

1. By alphabetical order
The easiest way to find a character in a dictionary is the Western one: by alphabetical order. Of course, you will need to know the pinyin (or Wade-Giles, depending on the dictionary) transcription for your character, and possibly its tone - take a look at how many characters are there under the syllable ji or shi. In most dictionaries characters are ordered by alphabet and by tone, but not all of them... the notorious Mathew's Chinese-English Dictionary is by alphabet (though a weird alphabet, with, for instance, sung coming before sha), but not by tone.
In the end, the more characters you know, the faster you will find them on a dictionary, also because experience will help you "guess" the pronounciation of characters you've never seen by the elements that compose them - even though this is not a precise method, on the contrary! A couple of examples:

is pronounced jiao like its component


is pronounced chong while its component is pronounced zong

2. By radical
What you must learn is to find characters by radical (what have we learned them for?). First you need to identify the radical in a character, which is most times easy. Let's try to find a character with a radical we didn't learn in the tutorial:

1. This is the character we have to find:
2. Let's find its radical. It's at the top:
3. This radical is composed of one stroke.
We can find it in the first table (detail);
it is radical number 4 of this dictionary.
4. The rest of the character
is composed of three strokes:
5. In the second table we will look for
characters with radical number 4 plus three strokes:

Don't worry; it's easier than it seems. A little practise and you will immediately understand where the radical is. There are, however, a few difficult radicals; you better learn some characters once for all, because finding them could be really hard. They're usually very common and composed of few strokes. A couple of examples:

chang (long) also has radical number 4:
chu (to exit) has radical number 3:

3. By number of strokes
This is a very useful method in case you can't find the radical of a character, but not every dictionary allow you to use it.

1. This is the character we have to find:
2. It is composed of 12 strokes
(shier hua in Chinese);
let's find the right page:
3. The first two strokes of this character are:
4. So we'll look for this character here:

4. The "corners"

The last method is a very difficult one... According to it, the different shapes of strokes are given a number from 0 to 9:
Characters are then classified after the number of their four corners (and according to many rules), as in the following example:

In the second table we can now find our character:

And that's all. Hope you had some fun throughout this tutorial!

[ << The radicals : part 12 ] [ Table of contents ] [ Characters index >>]

By Diana Lavarini & Anna Del Franco, 1999.
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