Top 5 Free Online Chinese Dictionaries

Tuesday, December 9, 2014 | By:

Well, the dust has settled and the much beloved and maligned Nciku Chinese online dictionary has gone to the great website graveyard in the sky. Now where on the web can you go to look up your latest  生词儿? Don’t despair, TWOC’s got a list of five viable alternatives selected for their utility to Chinese language learners and listed in order of most web traffic.

MDBG is the heir apparent to Nciku and it’s more than up to the task.  Ease of use is the strong point of this website, thanks to a very simple interface with the search box situated in the center of the page, right where it should be.  Each definition comes with a sub menu that includes, among other features, animated stroke order, audio pronunciation, example sentences, the latest Baidu entry, and the ability to add to your Skritter vocabulary. Click on the magnifying glass icon and you’ll get a rich amount of information about the character, from Tang dynasty pronunciation to corresponding grade level in the Hong Kong school system. In addition to the word dictionary, it also has a character dictionary with many customization and input options such as pinyin vs. Bopomofo, tone colors, and Yale vs. Jyutping for Cantonese. You can also search for words by radical like a traditional dictionary. It comes in Windows, Mac, and mobile versions. One of the few drawbacks is that the handwriting recognition is clunky as the browser settings have to be tweaked to enable the Java plugin to work.

2. Chinese tools 
This website offers many tools beyond a simple dictionary including an annotation tool that takes Chinese text and annotates it with pinyin and English meaning. Also included is a pinyin pronunciation tool to read Chinese characters,  a built in Chinese input method editor, and a pinyin tone editor.  With the basic dictionary, you can search for words in pinyin, English, or Chinese character. There is also a Chinese thesaurus, a list of slang, and a Chengyu dictionary.  In the dictionary itself, there are limited audio examples of pronunciation and there are no example sentences, but the site includes many vocabulary lists and free lessons including audio on a wide variety of subjects. There does not appear to be a way to hand write the characters into the dictionary interface.

3. Yabla Chinese
This is a decent site for beginners to get started on with it’s clean interface and centrally located search box. You can search English, pinyin, or Chinese characters which will provide you with basic definitions, a long list of related words, and stroke order for all words listed. Unfortunately, there is no handwriting recognition tool, nor are their example sentences or audio pronunciation with the dictionary itself. The site does come with a Chinese flashcard vocabulary game and a pinyin chart with corresponding audio. The rest of its contents are for paid subscribers.

4. Yellow Bridge
This site gives you a lot of bang for your buck, and best of all it’s free. There is a handwriting recognition tool that is more responsive than MDBG and there is a callout icon for audio pronunciation. There are also tabs for example sentences, animated stroke order, common words, and etymology. The etymology explorer is unique in that it allows you drill down, layer by layer, with versions for both traditional and simplified characters. There is also Cantonese pronunciation included along with various character input method codes. Like Chinese Tools, there are number of added features on the site like flash cards from vocabulary lists from a number of textbooks, a text annotator, and memory games.

5. Chinese Etymology
This is a specialized dictionary focusing on the etymology of a given Chinese character. Enter either a simplified or traditional character and it will provide etymology of both the traditional and simplified versions of the character as well as the core meaning. It then displays a list of historical versions of the character in seal script, bronze, and oracle bones. It also has an option to list characters with the same phonetic and an option to that lists characters with the same signific (semantic root). Unfortunately, there are some character sections that are currently under construction, so hopefully this site will be updated soon.

Youdao Dictionary and iciba get honorable mention because they both powerful tools that provide example sentences and audio pronunciation, but you need a higher level of Chinese reading skill as the interfaces are entirely in Chinese and there is little in the way of pinyin. Apps are beyond the scope of this blog, but Pleco is one most popular and highly rated free dictionary apps out there. It is also one of several apps with OCR for Chinese text.

Nothing beats the feeling of a good old fashioned print dictionary in your hands, so order a copy of the Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English dictionary in our online store today!  We also have a fantastic picture dictionary with  illustrations of more than 4,000 commonly used words and phrases that is a must have for all Mandarin learning levels.


Image courtesy of, by 丸九.


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3 Responses to Top 5 Free Online Chinese Dictionaries

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report

  2. wei says:

    looks like nciku has become Line Dictionary, at least I got redirected to here

    • Keoni Everington (华武杰) says:

      Right you are Wei. The problem is that hardly anybody uses Line in China, not the cool kids anyway.

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