Which Online Chinese Dictionary Should I Use?

Whether you’re just getting started on your Chinese learning journey or have been an avid student of the language for years, one thing is certain: you’ll need a reliable online Chinese dictionary to help enrich your vocabulary.

Picking the right dictionary isn’t a simple task. Fortunately, CLI has done the research for you! Read on to discover our top recommended Chinese dictionaries.

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Why should you use a Chinese dictionary?

Picture this: you’re watching TV with your Chinese friend and her family after a nice dinner at their house, but when everyone bursts out laughing at the MC’s funny quip, you just don’t get the joke.

Or, imagine that you’re reading a Chinese news article on your computer or phone and are cruising right along when you suddenly stumble upon a confusing combination of characters that throws you off track.

In either of the above situations, having a trusted, accurate Chinese-English dictionary at your disposal will allow you to continue using Chinese and enjoying your life in China without missing a beat.

In addition to expanding your vocabulary and helping you out with daily tasks, the process of using a dictionary is a study method in and of itself. That’s because the act of searching for words will help your mind retain the new information you’re looking up.

For all these reasons, downloading a Chinese dictionary onto your smartphone or adding one to your browser’s bookmarks bar is a necessary step towards fluency.

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To fully enjoy everyday life in China, you’ll need to have a reliable Chinese dictionary on hand.

Online vs. traditional dictionaries

As is the case with most media in the 21st century, Chinese dictionaries come in two formats: physical and digital.

While both versions have their benefits, online dictionaries are generally quicker and more convenient when it comes to helping you gain the Mandarin knowledge you need, exactly when you need it.

Looking up Chinese characters the old fashioned way

Before we dive into the world of online Chinese dictionaries, it’s worth noting that knowing how to look up Chinese characters in an old-fashioned paper dictionary is a useful skill to have in case you’re ever in a pinch without technology in hand.

Additionally, if you ever plan to study at a university in China, you’ll find that smartphones and laptops are often forbidden in classrooms, while paper dictionaries are often welcome.

In English and other phonetic languages, we use dictionaries simply by looking up words in alphabetical order according to their spelling. However, since the Chinese language is based on a detailed character system, looking up words in a paper dictionary can be tricky.

a popular paper Chinese dictionary

Looking up words in a traditional Chinese paper dictionary can be tricky.

To look up Chinese characters in an old-fashioned paper dictionary, you’ll need to examine the character you want to look up and identify the primary character radical (部首 or bùshǒu, the root component upon which each Chinese character is based) and the number of remaining strokes.

Because looking up Chinese characters in paper dictionaries can be quite time consuming for native and non-native speakers alike, such books have become less popular with the advent of online search engines.

Knowing how to use a paper dictionary can still come in useful sometimes, however. Check out the demonstration of how to use a physical Chinese dictionary in the video below and try it for yourself!

books with Chinese traditional characters written on their spines

Knowing how to use old-fashioned dictionaries is recommended, but most learners prefer to look online.

Utilizing an online dictionary

Utilizing an online Chinese dictionary is one of the most convenient ways to quickly expand your Mandarin vocabulary. In order to look up a character or phrase, simply type the target text into the search bar using the pinyin or handwriting keyboard you have installed on your device.

If you’re not quite sure how to type in Chinese yet, check out our article for complete instructions.

Top dictionary apps for your smartphone

Now that you’ve pinned down your word search strategy, read on to discover our recommendations for the best Chinese dictionary apps.


Pleco is one of the most popular English-Chinese dictionaries and is considered to be a sacred resource by CLI team members.

Featuring a clean and intuitive interface, Pleco allows users to look up words by simply typing the English, Chinese characters or pinyin (no tone marks necessary) into the search bar. A database of useful results appears, ranked in order of most commonly used entries.

a video showing Pleco, a popular online Chinese dictionary

Pleco is the preferred Chinese dictionary app of many CLI students and staff.

In addition to Pleco’s basic dictionary function, some of the app’s most functional elements are the handy extra features you’ll find located in the left-hand sidebar, such as the clipboard reader.

To utilize the clipboard reader, just copy a chunk of text (from a WeChat message, for example) and paste it into the reader box. Then, as you scan along, simply tap any characters you don’t understand and the pinyin/definitions will automatically pop up!

a video showing how to use a Chinese online dictionary to read a newspaper

Pleco’s clipboard reader function makes it easy to read complex Chinese texts.

While the basic version of Pleco is free, the app also hosts several paid add-ons, including an OCR (optical character recognition) feature which allows users to hold up their phone’s camera directly to characters they’re reading in real life (say, on a menu or billboard) and scan the text, which is then processed within the Pleco app.


The Hanping Dictionary app, currently only available for Android users, is another helpful Chinese-English lexicon that’s roughly comparable to Pleco.

In addition to a basic dictionary, the free version, known as “Hanping Lite,” features a handwriting recognition tool, audio pronunciation by a native speaker and an impressive database of example sentences for each word.

For a fee, the “Hanping Pro” version includes a tone-pair soundboard to help users practice pronouncing tones and flashcards as supported by Anki, one of our favorite flashcard apps.

a picture of the interface of Hanping, an online Chinese dictionary

Hanping is another great Chinese dictionary app for language students.

Google Translate

Google Translate is the multilingual dictionary of choice for foreigners and locals alike in Taiwan and other Chinese-speaking areas with Internet freedom. This online dictionary is completely free and includes a complimentary handwriting tool.

Google Translate won’t help you browse and compare words to find the most nuanced, accurate definition, but it will help you gain a quick, direct comprehension of the target text no matter how long or short.

Google Translate’s search results are usually quite authentic and the platform is worth mentioning for its utility in those time-sensitive “how do you say…” moments.

Top web dictionaries

It’s often more convenient to look up new words using websites rather than smartphone apps, for example, when you’re reading an article on your computer or typing an email in Chinese. Fortunately, there are many top-notch online dictionary websites available to aid this process.


MDBG is a tried and tested Chinese-English online dictionary that boasts a no-frills interface, consistently accurate search results and thorough definitions for each entry.

In addition to a handwriting function and built-in translation tool for longer texts, the site also includes a “practice” page which hosts online flashcards, quizzes and an optional daily vocabulary web feed.

The “Character” option on the MDBG top toolbar provides an in-depth introduction to the radical breakdown and stroke order of individual characters. As far as we’re concerned, these are all added bonuses for those whose goal is to increase retention of new vocabulary.

a video showing the user interface of another popular online Chinese dictionary

MDBG boasts a variety of functions that make it easy to explore the individual components of Chinese words.


Formerly known as Nciku, Line Dict is another web-based Chinese-English dictionary that sets itself apart from the rest by its vast database of examples for each word and expression.

As all language learners know, understanding the definition of a word is only half the battle; understanding how to use the word in context is equally important. That’s where Line Dict comes in handy.

When looking up a word in the toolbar, choose to search for the word’s definition or usage examples. This will bring up hundreds and sometimes even thousands of authentic example sentences, complete with audio to help aid your memory.

Additionally, the Line Dict homepage features daily expressions, quotes and 成语 (chéngyǔ, four-character Chinese idioms), making it even more convenient for you to learn new, genuine expressions without spending extra time seeking them out.

the logo of Line Dict, another online Chinese dictionary

Line Dict is the perfect tool for those looking to understand the way Chinese words are used in context.


Although YellowBridge doesn’t feature the most modern interface in the online dictionary world, it’s nonetheless an extremely detailed online dictionary option. The basic word search function includes the option to search by character or radical and the site also features a helpful thesaurus.

The site also features a character-etymology section, trivia page with mini-educational articles related to Chinese culture and history, as well as a memory guessing game.

More than just a dictionary, YellowBridge is an ideal site for those passionate about expanding their knowledge of China. It’s easy to spend hours surfing the site while continuing to deepen your knowledge of Chinese language and culture.

YellowBridge, another great online Chinese dictionary

YellowBridge offers a variety of fun and educational features in addition to a detailed Chinese dictionary.

Improve your life with pop-up dictionaries

No article on online Chinese dictionaries would be complete without mentioning pop-up dictionaries, which will make your life as a Chinese language student significantly easier, especially if you often read long texts made up of Chinese characters on your screen.

Pop-up dictionaries are installed as Internet browser extensions so that when you hover over a given character as you read, its pronunciation and definition will automatically pop-up. How convenient is that?

Zhongwen Chinese-English Dictionary is an ideal choice for an excellent, reliable pop-up Chrome extension.

Keep growing your vocabulary!

We hope this article helped you determine which Chinese online dictionary is best suited to upgrading your Chinese study process. If you plan to travel or study in China, a trusted dictionary is an absolute necessity for your packing list.

To keep improving, be sure to pair your self-study regimen with plenty of interaction with native speakers. With a bit of hard work and focus, you’ll find yourself relying on your dictionary less and less.

Remember, 学无止境 (xuéwúzhǐjìng; there’s always something new to learn)!

a CLI student and teacher studying Chinese

Choosing the right online Chinese dictionary will help pave the way for a smooth Mandarin learning journey.

Online Chinese dictionary vocabulary

书页shūyèpage (in a book)
查个字chá gè zìto look up a word
部首bùshǒucharacter radical
学无止境xuéwúzhǐjìnglearning knows no limits

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