Looking for good modern Chinese dictionaries to complete your Chinese learning? You’ve come to the right place! From online dictionaries to dictionary applications, we’ve reviewed 8 Chinese dictionaries to help you choose the one that will suit you the best. Without further ado, here’s our selection of the best free online Chinese dictionaries currently available!
Before diving into our reviews of the best free Chinese dictionaries to help you improve in Mandarin, let’s take a moment to see why we strongly recommend you add a Chinese dictionary to your learning arsenal, especially a technology-based one. Can’t wait to see our selection of our favorite free Chinese dictionaries? Click here to jump straight to the reviews!
Why you need a Chinese dictionary in your learning arsenal
Let’s imagine you’re reading a newspaper or a blog post online, and right there, in the middle of a sentence, there’s an unknown Chinese character. What are you going to do? Just leave it alone? Sometimes, unknown words don’t keep you from understanding the whole sentence but in a lot of cases, especially so in Chinese, those unknown words will be an obstacle to your understanding. There’s only one solution: look up this evil word in a Chinese dictionary.
Chinese dictionaries are also a good help when it comes to looking up unknown words you come across when traveling. Maybe it’ll be an unknown word on a street sign, in a shop, or maybe you simply want to understand the menu in a restaurant… in all those situations, you’ll be glad you have a dictionary with you to decipher the words that escape you, whether it’s a paper, online or offline Chinese dictionary.
Don’t you agree that it’s important to include a dictionary in your Chinese learning arsenal?
You’ll be definitely needing one when traveling in China or learning Chinese, to be able to understand the unknown words you run into. Of course, you can’t rely only on dictionaries to learn Chinese. Ninchanese is here to help you learn new vocabulary in Chinese, master grammar rules and hone your Chinese speaking and listening skills. Keep your favorite dictionary for those times you’re reading Chinese texts on the Internet, and use it wisely as a help!
Online Chinese dictionaries trump Chinese paper dictionaries
Now, maybe you’re wondering: which are best, Chinese paper dictionaries or online Chinese dictionaries? We’ll be blunt: paper dictionaries are good of course, but we’re 100% pro -online Chinese dictionaries. Let us tell you why.
Chinese dictionaries have evolved a lot since the invention of the first Chinese paper dictionaries. Technology has made Chinese dictionaries tremendously more accessible and has helped a lot to provide everyone with dictionaries for free.
Technology has made Chinese dictionaries tremendously more accessible and has helped a lot to provide everyone with dictionaries for free.
— Ninchanese (@Ninchanese) 26 May 2016
For those who were born with a computer/ phone/ tablet/ phablet in their hands, believe us, you can be grateful you don’t have to experience what it was like to look up a word or a Chinese character in a Chinese paper dictionary. Looking up a Chinese character or word the traditional way, in a paper dictionary, was and still is a long process. Here’s how it works:
How to look up a Chinese character or word the traditional way
2. Look up that radical in the radical table at the beginning of the dictionary. Found the right section? Great.
3. Now, count the number of strokes in the character so you can look for the character in the right part of that radical’s section.
4. Find the character you’re looking for in the list
5. Awesome, you’ve found the character! That character’s pronunciation is indicated next to it. Now that you have its pronunciation, you can thumb through the dictionary, go to the right page and find the word you’re looking for!
6. You’re done!
Honestly, half of the time, by the time you were done looking for the character you wanted to look up in the radical list, you’d pretty much forgotten what character you wanted to look up and why. Technology has changed that completely.
How to look up a Chinese character the modern way
Now, with the advent of technology, looking up a Chinese character or word has never been easier.
How? If you know the pinyin or the meaning of a word you’re looking up, you can easily find it and relieve your thirst for knowledge. And what if you don’t know anything about a character you’ve seen in a newspaper, for instance? How can you find its meaning or pinyin? Not to worry, that’s simple too: just draw it! Yes, when you need to decipher an unknown Chinese character, you can simply draw it.
Some online dictionaries even offer a tool to draw the character directly with your mouse or touchpad. There’s no need to be an artist to find the character you want, most handwriting tools aren’t too sensitive.
Some online dictionaries even offer a tool to draw the character directly with your mouse or touchpad. There’s no need to be an artist.
— Ninchanese (@Ninchanese) 26 May 2016
And if there’s no handwriting tool offered, there’s still an easy way to draw your character, thanks to your computer’s IME (Input Method Editor), or using your phone’s specific Chinese handwriting keyboard or IME.
See? Much simpler.
Many features that go beyond the simple translation system have also been added to English-Chinese and Chinese-English digital dictionaries to help learners improve their Chinese. For instance, in most digital dictionaries, you can now also hear the pronunciation of a word, which is awesome! Being able to listen to someone pronouncing the word correctly is great. Then you can repeat what you hear, to try to get the right accent and tone, instead of making up a pronunciation in your head.
Also, as you’ll see in our reviews below, in some of these online translators and dictionaries, you can also find examples containing the word you’re looking for. Magic and terribly useful, right?!
Yes, technology has helped all Chinese speakers save many hours we can spend watching brilliant cat videos instead. And because we love cats, we want you to save even more time by helping you figure out which are the best Chinese dictionaries to use.
Our review of the best free Chinese dictionaries available for Chinese learners
From online dictionaries to applications, we’ve selected our favorite free Chinese dictionaries to help you improve in Mandarin. We tested 3 categories of Chinese dictionaries: online Chinese dictionaries, pop-up dictionaries, and offline mobile dictionary applications. Depending on your needs, we know you’ll find one or several Chinese dictionaries for you in this selection.
Fair warning: We’ve left the hardest task to you: picking the one that fits you best! Ready? Let’s explore these Chinese dictionaries!
Free Online Chinese Dictionaries
Online dictionaries might be for you if you like to spend time online and need to look up words. Instead of thumbing through your paper dictionary, all you have to do is to open a new tab in your browser and look up the Chinese character’s meaning or pronunciation in pinyin!
MDBG is actually the first Chinese dictionary you come across when you google “Chinese dictionary”. MDBG focuses on being a good reference for Chinese learners by offering detailed information about characters such as the pronunciation, the meaning, the strokes order, the examples and so on. They’ve become quickly popular among the Chinese learning community. Did you know MDBG is also maintaining CC-CEDICT? CC-CEDICT is an open source database to which everyone can contribute to create a complete Chinese to English dictionary with pronunciation in pinyin for the Chinese characters. CC-CEDICT is also used by many Chinese dictionaries such as Perapera, Zhongwen Chinese popup dictionary, Pleco and others.
Lots of data are provided about the characters, with:
- Stroke animations that show the characters stroke by stroke and character decomposition
- Handwriting input: you can draw characters with your mouse to look them up and that’s pretty awesome! It’s very useful when you come across a character you neither know how to pronounce or what it means.
- Example sentences, for a better understanding of how words are used in context.
- Clean interface which helps a lot to easily find the words you’re looking for.
- Advanced search function. You can search almost everything: single characters, words, pinyin, English of course, but also look up words by character components, Cangjie input method and more. You can also ask for the Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciation.
- A new feature is the “Look up All Chinese Words in a Text” option, that shows the meaning of each Chinese word in a text you upload. The + : you can choose the mouse over translation option to highlight definitions as you’re reading.
- HSK level: Next to each word, its corresponding HSK level is indicated. That way you can learn words that fit your HSK level, just like on Ninchanese!
- Its basic interface. MDBG is not the most colorful and playful interface to use for sure. But, as they say, don’t judge a book by its cover, right?
- We’d love to have more extra features but this is not the purpose of this online Chinese dictionary.
Many useful and practical tools are brought to Chinese learners with this dictionary. MDBG is definitely a good online dictionary to have by your side if you need a complete one with cool tools.
Bab.la is a pretty good online dictionary and translator you can use to translate from English to Chinese and from Chinese to English. As you may know, its translator offers many languages you can switch from to target your search. This online dictionary provides the learners with all the main stuff you expect from a Chinese dictionary: translations, pronunciations, and synonyms, as well as special features, such as a phrasebook, quizzes, and more.
- Lots of synonyms are provided whenever you look up words. That’s really interesting to get to know the slight differences between the words.
- The clear interface, that makes you want to look up tons of words.
- The audio so you can hear the pronunciation of each word.
- Context sentences, that show you how and when to use a certain word.
- A forum, for linguistic doubts in case you need a grammar explanation. It can be also very useful to share your Chinese learning journey with others, just like in the Ninchanese Slack community, and ask them their opinion about a topic.
- A phrasebook which is divided into 6 sections from travel to business. This phrasebook gets you prepared for every situation you’re going to face in China, depending on your profile.
- Quizzes. Playing small quizzes can be a good help when learning Chinese.
- Lack of extra tools such as stroke orders explanations.
- The lack of Chinese specialization. We’d love to have more specific features for Chinese learning.
To sum up, Bab.la is a good dictionary you can rely on especially if you want to explore the background of language learning, with forums in many foreign languages.
Let’s move to the last online Chinese dictionary we reviewed: Ichacha, which is a dictionary available in a few languages such as Japanese, Korean, French, Russian, and English. Ichacha translates all those languages into Chinese and vice-versa.
Ichacha looks like a paper dictionary. When looking up a word, you get all its uses: from nouns to verbs. A large broad of examples is also provided.
- Data mining technology is definitely Ichacha’s strength. The use of data mining data technology to collect new and trendy Chinese words is a great plus. It’s really cool stuff to know all the vocabulary used by native speakers.
- Several versions: you can access the English version but also the traditional Chinese version.
- Example sentences: putting the word you’ve just learned in a context is certainly the best way to remember it.
- The interface is not the prettiest.
- Not really easy to handle the dictionary at first. When getting started with this dictionary you may feel a little bit lost, but once you know your way around, it’s fine.
- The ads. You can get easily disturbed by the many ads displayed on the website.
Ichacha is an unconventional Chinese dictionary that makes Mandarin learning more accessible. The translation of new words adds a fantastic feature to this dictionary.
Online dictionaries are a great help since they’re very complete, we agree, but what if you don’t want to open a new tab in your browser to look up words? Have you ever thought of installing a popup dictionary? Chinese popup dictionaries are great complements to online dictionaries, and also work as standalones. Let’s see what the best Popup Chinese dictionaries are!
Free Popup Chinese Dictionaries
Popup dictionaries are really useful when you’re reading a text online in Chinese and need to know the meaning of some words. Pop-up dictionaries instantly translate a word you don’t know as you hover over it. Just hover over the word with your mouse and the translation appears. Neat, huh?
Installing a popup dictionary
Chinese Pop-up dictionaries are usually plugins or extensions you add to your browser. Install them, activate them if needed and let the magic happen. Once activated, you’ll simply need to hover over a word in Chinese to see its pronunciation and meaning. Not all is wonderful about these plugins, but one thing’s for sure: they make reading Chinese online wonderfully easier. All you have to do is to hover a word with your mouse! We all wish we could use them on paper texts too. But, as they don’t exist (yet), here are two awesome pop-up Chinese dictionaries you can use online.
We all wish we could use them on paper texts too. But, as they don’t exist (yet), here are two awesome pop-up Chinese dictionaries you can use online.
Zhongwen Chinese popup dictionary
Zhongwen Chinese popup dictionary is available in Chrome. Once you’ve added it to your Chrome extensions, you can activate this popup dictionary extension by clicking on the little logo in the toolbar. You’ll then be ready to translate everything you want just by hovering over words with your mouse!
- The translation of expressions and loanwords.
- It identifies well whether you’re highlightings a group of words, an expression or a single word.
- Its keyboard shortcuts: for instance, when you press the letter “g” button on your keyboard while hovering a word, you’re redirected to a wiki page explaining Chinese grammar rules related to that word. “T” takes you to Tatoeba, where you’ll see example sentences containing that word.
- The easy use of the plugin, once it’s installed, all you’ll need to do is to switch on and off the little icon to activate the pop-up dictionary or not. Easy!
- Too useful. I mean, you can easily get addicted to this popup dictionary and that can keep you from improving your Chinese. Use it only when you really need it.
- Only available on Chrome and Apple’s Safari. What a loss for all the people that want to learn Chinese and don’t have the Chrome browser or a MacBook.
- This popup dictionary doesn’t always recognize the new and trendy Chinese words because they’re not in the database.
If you hate complicated things, then this pop-up dictionary is for you! As it is easy to install and to use, it’s very useful on a daily basis.
The next pop-up dictionary we’ll talk about is PeraPera, which has different features. It’s going to be hard to choose!
Perapera is available both in Firefox and Chrome. Whenever you meet a Chinese character or word you don’t know, hover your mouse over it and Perapera will translate it for you.
- Available in both Firefox and Chrome.
- You can save and export words to study them later. It’s a pretty cool way to remember and learn the words you run into on Chinese websites.
- Multiple display options: should it display tone marks, pinyin, zhuyin, simplified Chinese or traditional Chinese? It’s all up to you.
- Same as the Zhongwen Chinese popup dictionary. You can be tempted to rely on Perapera all the time and stop using your brain to read the characters you actually already know. That’s not the best way to learn Chinese.
- Not many keyboard shortcuts.
Pop-up dictionaries are useful tools that will help you improve your Chinese reading skills, but make sure you also know how to manage without them as well! Don’t depend on them; it’s easy to get addicted to over-hovering!
Now that we’ve seen online Chinese dictionaries and pop-up dictionaries, you can guess what’s next: Mobile dictionary applications!
Free Mobile Chinese Dictionaries (Android and iOS)
Time to talk about mobile Chinese dictionaries. As you don’t always carry your computer with you, having a Chinese dictionary on your smartphone can be very practical, especially if you’re traveling, or walking in the street.
Another cool thing about dictionary applications is that you can usually use them offline. That way, when traveling, you won’t need to spend all your money on internet access to look up words. Instead, whenever you decide to go for a little adventure in the middle of nowhere with no Internet Connection, or in a foreign country, let say, China, install one of these 3 dictionary apps, and you’ll be able to translate every word you need offline.
Lastly, dictionaries applications are also full of awesome extensions that can help you improve your Chinese. These mobile Chinese dictionaries in this shortlist will become your go-to on the do Chinese resources for sure!
Hanping is a great Chinese dictionary app. The interface looks friendly with all the vivid colors. First impressions last. Hanping offers two versions: the Lite version which is the free one and the Pro version, which is the not so free one. As for the content, in addition to translations, words pronunciation and Anki flashcards export options, you’ll find tools like handwriting recognition, multi-syllable audio recordings, search-by-radicals, home screen widgets, vertical Zhuyin, and other useful extensions in both the Lite and the Pro versions.
- Dynamic search. This feature is pretty awesome, when you’re looking up words the first result will be your target word and the following results Hanping shows you, are all started with your target word. And if you’re looking for a multi-syllable word, then you will get all words that contain those characters in that order (even if other characters are in between).
- Idioms. Hanping contains lots of Chinese idioms that are really useful for Mandarin learners thanks to predefined word lists containing popular idioms and words that are frequently used in China.
- Cantonese version:Y ou can also download Hanping Cantonese app using CantoDict data, for those interested in Cantonese.
- Its popup dictionary add-on for your mobile device. A little pointer appears on your screen and it translates words live. No matter which version you’ve downloaded (lite, pro or Cantonese), you can use this add-on which comes separately (paid).
- Free full-screen handwriting recognition. Hanping offers handwriting recognition. This is definitely a must-have tool for a Chinese dictionary.
- Only available on Android.
- The paid add-ons. You have to pay for them, but some of them are worth it.
Hanping also has an OCR app called Hanping Camera that uses an innovative barcode scanner style design to read Chinese text in the wild, without having to touch your screen.
If you’re interested in Hanping but can’t decide whether or not you should get the Pro version, it depends on the extensions you want to add in. For some, the Lite version can be sufficient as it’s quite complete for a free Chinese dictionary. So give the Lite version a try and see if you want to upgrade to the Pro.
Pleco (iOS & Android)
Pleco is one of the most popular mobile Chinese dictionaries, how could we not mention it in our review? This app is available both on Android and iOS, which makes it more accessible to everyone. What about its features? Pleco offers a wide database to search from, in which you can look up words, translations, synonyms, pronunciation, stroke order, example sentences and more. This application also gives the users the option of adding licensed Chinese dictionaries (for a fee). Let’s explore Pleco’s features in our pro and con section below.
- Handwriting recognition. You can look up words just by drawing the characters in simplified or traditional Chinese. Plus, it’s okay if you get the stroke order wrong, Pleco’s recognition deals with scribbles very well.
- A screen reader to make you more familiar with Chinese words you don’t know. You can look up Chinese words everywhere on your phone by tapping on a floating button. This tool is probably one of the best on Pleco as the word analysis is very accurate.
- Its clipboard reader: copy a text you want to look up words in, go to your clipboard reader in Pleco and you’ll be able to look up all the words you want. Great for when you’re chatting in Chinese in Wechat
- The document reader, which works like the screen reader but for files (paid add-on on IOS and Android)
- OCR system: The OCR system (Optical Character Recognition) is a recent update of Pleco that allows you to instantly translate words you don’t know by using your mobile device’s camera or by tapping the word on a picture. Magic! Your phone is now a Chinese learning weapon capable of translating any sign in the streets!
- The examples that show you how to use the word you’ve just looked up.
- Detailed information about the word: Pleco shows you the components contained in the characters, the characters contained in the word you’re looking for, but also compounds words that contain the character you’re looking up.
- A large choice of dictionaries to add. If you have specific needs or just want to compare dictionaries definitions, Pleco offers several free and paying dictionaries you can add. That allows you to see more various definitions, content, explanations, and definitions that sites that offer mono-dictionaries.
- A free Cantonese version that comes with four Cantonese dictionaries, like cantonese.org for instance.
- Paying IOS features. Most of these awesome tools like the screen reader, are only available for free on Android. Sorry, Apple lovers, you’ll have to pony up.
- Many extra features. Too many, perhaps? Pleco provides lots of tools for their users, which is cool, but it can be hard keeping up with all the new extensions.
In case you’re hesitating between the add-ons that can be installed in Pleco, try the screen reader tool. Very practical when you’re exploring on the web! If you have an iPhone, then Pleco is definitely made for you!
MyCEDict – My Chinese-English Dictionary (Android)
If you’re not into extensions and add-ons for your mobile dictionary, My Chinese-English Dictionary is for you! This free Chinese dictionary app is very easy to use. It gives you translations and examples, which is sometimes all we want from a Chinese-English dictionary.
- Easy to use.
- Clean interface.
- Notes. You can note Chinese characters or sentences you want to save for later, as a reminder.
- Better translations from Chinese to English than from English to Chinese.
- Lack of updates.
MyCEDict can be a useful app to have on your phone, depending how much you rely on Chinese dictionaries and their features. As we say less is more, the essential things you need, i.e translations and examples are gathered is this app.
What about other good free online Chinese dictionaries?
You may use or find other online Chinese dictionaries or applications we haven’t reviewed here.
Here are some of them:
- Line Dict, which replaced the well-loved Nciku, a now defunct Chinese dictionary, and learning tool.
- Youdao, a well-known online dictionary and Android app which can be difficult to use for beginners since it’s all written in Chinese. But still, it’s a very useful dictionary for advanced learners.
- YellowBridge, a free online Chinese dictionary in which you can find examples, synonyms and learn about each character’s history, and more.
- Arch Chinese, an online dictionary in which you can learn the meaning and symbol of each Chinese character according to their shape and history.
We hope you’ll find this review of these 8 free Chinese dictionaries helpful to you! From online dictionaries to applications, we’ve selected our favorite ones and added their pros and cons. All you have to do now is to choose the method you prefer to decipher Chinese characters and words and bury your Mandarin paper dictionary for good! The uprising of the machine starts now! Do you already have a fave Chinese dictionary? Which of these do you use the most and why? Tell everyone in the comments!
Wondering what to read next? How about knowing how many Chinese characters and words exist in Chinese and how many you should learn? We just wrote a blog post about that!