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Methods of Chinese Cataloging: Searching in a Chinese Dictionary

This guide hopes to help those with no familiarity with Chinese characters understand how to search through various cataloging systems.

Searching in a Chinese Dictionary


     The goal of the next two sections - Radicals and Searching in a Dictionary - is to help people who are accustomed to alphabetic languages understand the concepts behind searching through a dictionary comprised of Chinese characters. 


  1. First, an understanding of radicals in Chinese writing is necessary.
  • The included tutorial has Chinese examples as well as an illustration which uses English words to actively demonstrate using radicals. 


  1. Once radicals are understood, a short demonstration is given which uses short English-words to mimic the process of searching through a Chinese dictionary.
  • Examples which show the importance behind even the slightest different among lolographic words are also given.



                                             Radicals are necessary to use a Chinese dictionary.

  • The simplest way to explain a radical may be to say that they are the predominant glyphs that stand out in a given Chinese character, usually located on the top and/or left part of the completed Chinese character.
  • To illustrate Chinese radicals, the following photo, which was found in That's Mandarin Blog, ThatsMandarinBlog (2020)displays some common Chinese characters with their radicals highlighted in blue:

  • It is important to emphasize that irregular situations exist! In fact, some can be seen in the chart above. Sometimes, the radical is not the predominant part of the character, or located on the top or left portion. However, to ensure simplicity and understanding, this guide will only utilize examples that follow the basic rule. 

A Demonstration of Radicals with English Words  

     For those people are accustomed to an alphabetic language, the following photo illustrates the concept of radicals by using English words, each of which is rearranged into a form that resembles a common pattern in Chinese character composition. Underneath each example, the word it written out, and the "radical" in each example is described.


  • While alphabetic languages usually organize dictionary sections alphabetically, Chinese dictionaries predominantly rely on the presence of radicals to organize the various sections.
  • More than 200 radicals exist in written Chinese, and a concise list can be found on this Yellow Bridge, Yellow Bridge (2020)resource. 

               After understanding radicals, someone can begin to navigate through a Chinese dictionary.


What to Know:

  • To help alphabetically accustomed people understand how to search through a modern Chinese dictionary, the following style of arranging graphic components will be used, which is one of many common arrangements in written Chinese:



  • By using this form, we can rearrange three-letter English words to mirror the shape of Chinese characters..




How to Search:

  1. In order to begin searching in a Chinese-style dictionary, you would first search for the section of your character's radical. In the above example, T is the shared radical. 

a.   It is first necessary to know how many strokes it takes to write your given radical.  For example, The letter O is written with one stroke of a pen or pencil, the letter T requires two strokes, and the letter F requires three.




b.   In a Chinese dictionary, radicals are arranged in ascending order by the number of strokes required to make write the component. Once you know how many strokes are requires to write your radical, you can then locate it in a Chinese dictionary: 


  1. After locating the section of your needed radical, it is now necessary to know how many strokes of your pen or pencil are required to write the remaining part of the character.

                    * The word CAT in this example requires 4 strokes to finish being written:




                    * The word TAX in this example requires 5 strokes to finish being written:




                    * The word FAT in this example requires 6 strokes to finish being written:





  1. A Chinese dictionary's radical section lists characters in ascending order by the number of strokes required to finish writing the remaining parts of the character. So, under the section for the radical T, you would want to go to the sections for 4, 5, and 6 strokes to find each word. 


Details Worth Noting:

  • Notice the slight difference between RAT and TAR. Simply switching the A and R completely changes the entire meaning of the character.




  •     Additionally, here is another example of how words can vary while using components:


  • All three words above use the same three components, but ART would be searched for under the R radical, which requires three strokes to be written, while TAR and RAT would be found under the T radical, which requires two strokes. Again, this highlights the need to understand radicals when searching in a dictionary.


     Now that you - hopefully - have an understanding of how to search through a Chinese dictionary, feel free to watch the following short video which demonstrates with an actual Chinese character, GBTIMES (2013):