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How To Use a Chinese Dictionary: Part 2 - WITHOUT PINYIN

When learning Chinese, you’re bound to run into 汉字 (hàn zì) - Chinese characters - that you don’t recognize - that’s part of the learning journey!

What’s more frustrating, though, is when you don’t know the 拼音 (pīn yīn) - pinyin, or have the pinyin available for that character. Well, we have good news for you - nowadays with modern technology, it’s NOT that difficult to look up characters without pinyin!

In this post, we’ll be looking at how to go about looking up Chinese words or characters using a 词典 (cí diǎn) - dictionary - without pinyin, as well as letting you know about some useful resources we recommend to students that are looking for online or physical dictionaries. (PS: We’re not affiliated with the companies, we just recommend them!)

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the first blog post in this two-part series, addressing how to look up a Chinese word with the pinyin.

Online Dictionary (Mobile App or Website)

To look up a character without the pinyin, the easiest way to look it up is to use a device to draw the character and look it up!

Online Dictionary - App:

We highly recommend using the Pleco app for this, as its usually easier to draw by hand than with a mouse. 

Before you try this, make sure you have the “Chinese handwriting” language option (简体手写 - jiǎn tǐ shǒu xiě) installed on your device. For step-by-step instructions for installing a Chinese keyboard on any device, check out this blog post

When you see a character you don’t recognize, use the “handwriting” tool in the Pleco app and mimic the individual strokes of the character on the screen. You do not necessarily need to follow the “correct” stroke order for the system to recognize it.

Here, some degree of precision is required, though it doesn’t need to look perfect, and depending on the complexity of the character, you might need to re-write it once or twice to locate the correct character. Once you see the one you’re looking for pop up in the bar above the writing area, feel free to select it, and then once you click, you’ll be able to see the full break down of the word.

*Pro Tip: When using the handwriting feature, try not to pause for too long in the middle of writing a character. It’s important to be a bit quick to finish writing the full character, since the system may automatically select the closest character(s) to what you’ve written so far, which can be a bit frustrating! It’s better to be a little sloppy, but quick to finish the character, in whatever stroke order you’re able to use! 

Online Dictionary - Website:

You can also do this on many Chinese dictionary websites on your computer - there is usually a handwriting icon or handwriting “box” itself for you to write using your mouse. Just bear in mind it’s usually easier to use a touch screen, for more accurate drawing.

For websites, we recommend using Line Dictionary (formerly called

Physical Dictionary

While many of the physical dictionaries out also have a section where you can look up a character by “stroke” or “radical”, we do not recommend going this route. This is really a lot harder for non-native Chinese speakers, and well, it’ll take a LOT longer to flip through that section than it would be to use a website or app to draw the character and look up the pinyin and English.

If you do want to use a physical dictionary to do so though, most physical Chinese-English dictionaries do have this section, so you do have this option as well. 

This section can also be found in the physical Chinese-English dictionary that we recommend,  “A New Century Chinese-English Dictionary”.

This wraps up our post on how to use Chinese-English dictionaries to look up Chinese words without pinyin - we hope this will be useful in your Chinese language learning journey!

Want to learn how to write Chinese characters? Check out the first two units of our Chinese Character Course, starting here with Lesson 1:

What’s your favorite physical dictionary, website or app for looking up Chinese characters and words? Let us know in the comments below!