How to use a Chinese dictionary

The component that represents the meaning of a character is called the radical, or basic picture that conveys meaning. On the basis of this radical Chinese characters can be arranged and looked up in the dictionary. There are 214 radicals whilst the number of characters varies among Chinese dictionaries. A character is found by picking out the radical. The radical of the example given in the previous article on the composition of Chinese characters is the component on the left, the "mouth":

3 strokes

First of all, you have to find the radical in a list of 214 radicals, which can be found in the dictionary. Each radical has a number. The radicals are sorted according to the number of strokes. "mouth" consists of three strokes and has the number 50 (unfortunately there is no standardized list. Therefore the numbers of the radicals may vary.). In a second list you find all the characters arranged according to their radicals. Secondly, you have to count the total number of strokes added to the radical.

2 strokes

In the second list all the characters with the radical number 50 and two additional strokes are listed and you can find the searched character and the page of the dictionary where it can be found. On this page the meaning and the pronunciation can be looked up. That procedure seems complicated at first glance but with a little practice you look words the characters up as quickly as in English- French or English-German dictionaries for example. Advanced students know the most important of the 214 radicals by heart and therefore only use the second list to look for the page in the dictionary.

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