Wenlin 4.0 Review


I’ve been given a copy of Wenlin 4.0 for Mac by the Wenlin Institute for an honest review. It’s no secret that I’ve been a fan of Wenlin for a long time, so I’m really happy to see an update to this wonderful piece of software which most of us almost dared not hope would ever issue another update. But the day has finally come! The new version offers some very welcome updates, but one major disappointment as well.

User Interface

Windows 95

Windows 95

I might as well get it over with. Wenlin’s most obvious flaw is its sadly outdated user interface. Despite all its usefulness, the software still looks and feels like Windows 95 (believe it or not, that particular OS is already 16 years old). When I fired up the new version of Wenlin 4.0, the first question on my mind was: what have they done with the UI? Is it finally decent?

Unfortunately, no. The UI is hardly changed. There are a few superficial changes, but some of the bigger ones, like new buttons in the toolbar, feel like a step backward for me. (Sorry, but if I’m still learning Chinese, there’s a good chance I won’t understand buttons labeled in Chinese!)

Another UI change which is almost comical is the new “Li” (☲) button. It’s Wenlin’s own “popout” window button, but it acts really strangely. It feels like a programmer’s desperate attempt to make some kind of UI improvement within a ridiculously stringent Windows 95-esque UI hell. And, well, it doesn’t really help.

Wenlin, if you’re listening, please, please work on your UI. It is important. Abandon your Windows 95 paradigm, and take a look at some of the brilliant UI work being done these days. Here’s one suggestion to get you moving in a more positive direction: tabs.

OK, but we never loved Wenlin for its UI anyway, right? If you can get over the huge UI letdown, there are some cool changes worth mention.

ABC Chinese-English Dictionary Updates

For me, the big update is the addition of Chinese characters to all sample sentences. This is a very welcome change. I haven’t gotten a chance to review updates to the actual dictionary content, but it’s good to know that it’s being improved upon too.

Wenlin 4.0 (characters for sample sentences)

Wenlin 3.x (no characters for sample sentences)

HSK word level indicators have also been added to entries, which some students will welcome.

I also really like that part of speech abbreviations now have explanations on mouseover. I can remember a few times when I really wanted to know what Wenlin’s abbreviation meant, but it was just way too cryptic.

Shuowen Jiezi Info

Wenlin 4.0 now offers Shuowen Jiezi (说文解字) entries as part of its character data, presented in Wenlin’s own custom seal script font (see the screenshot below).


This is where Wenlin really starts to show its true colors. Wenlin, while ostensibly built to assist students, is very academic-oriented, and the bias is becoming more pronounced. I’m not going to lie to you; as interesting as the Shuowen Jiezi characters look in their seal script, this is not highly useful to your average Chinese learner struggling to become even semi-literate. This stuff is for hardcore scholars. But am I glad to have this data added to Wenlin, now just a click away? Yes. Exploration is good, no matter your level, and those curvy seal script characters are enticing.

Character Description Language

Wenlin has devloped its own “Character Description Language” (CDL), which has been at work behind the scenes for a while, but is only recently accessible to the Wenlin end user. I use the term “accessible” somewhat lightly, though. I’ll explain why below. From Wenlin’s Description of the CDL:

CDL has always been a part of Wenlin, but the underlying language was invisible until Wenlin version 4.0. Now it is possible to view and manipulate the CDL description for any character that can be viewed in the stroking box. The key is to choose Advanced Options from the Options menu, and turn on the option labeled Enable advanced CDL (Character Description Language) features. Then, when you are viewing any character in the stroking box, there will be a checkbox labeled advanced, and when it is checked, additional buttons will be available. These buttons include:

  • CDL: to display the character’s description in XML format.
  • Points: to show the control points for manipulating the arrangement of strokes and components.
  • Strokes: to convert the description into one that uses only elements, not elements.
  • Scale: to ensure that the coordinates fit the entire grid, when editing.
  • EPS: to convert the character glyph into Encapsulated PostScript, an outline usable in graphics programs.
  • SVG: to convert the character glyph into Scalable Vector Graphics, an outline usable in web browsers and other programs.

I’m pretty geeky, and very into Chinese, so this sounds quite impressive to me. I had visions of using Wenlin’s CDL to do more of my own character creations, rather than having to mess around with text rasterization and cut and paste in Photoshop. This was not to be.

I followed Wenlin’s instructions on enabling the CDL options. It took me a little time, but I eventually realized that the “stroking box” is opened via an arrow link on each character entry page. To refresh your memory, this is what the stroking box looked like in Wenlin 3.x:


This is what it looks like in Wenlin 4.0:


The difference is somewhat subtle, but notice the extra buttons in the lower right corner of the stroking box. Optimistic, I tried the “points” button first. It gave me this:


I was a little disappointed that such a complex character was only broken down into two parts, but I was able to resize the different parts. I tried to figure out a way to adjust the “atomic” character components, but couldn’t figure it out.

I tried the SVG button and got this:


OK… so that’s SVG code. Being output directly into a Wenlin textbox. Interesting. I saved that to an SVG file, and I was indeed able to open the character as an SVG.

It was at this point that I realized that CDL, while very cool and perhaps revolutionary, is not for the typical end-user either. It’s created for programmers! If I want to do really cool things with the CDL I can, but I’m going to have to write code to do that. That’s probably not something I’m ever going to do, but I hope other people do!

How does Wenlin Compare?

While there are two other desktop software titles vying for Wenlin’s spot (Clavis Sinica and Key), Wenlin is still a favorite among the sinophiles I know. The one major threat to Wenlin’s dominance I hear mentioned again and again is Pleco. Although Pleco is currently only available for mobile devices, talk of Pleco’s debut as a desktop app has recently gotten a number of people I know wondering if Wenlin will soon be obsolete. Not only does Pleco license the same dictionary that Wenlin does (ABC Chinese-English Dictionary), but it also offers the option to use other dictionaries, and cool new features like the Pleco OCR Reader show that Pleco developer Michael Love intends to keep pumping out groundbreaking updates.

I asked Michael Love what he thought about Wenlin, and he gave a great response: “I don’t think either of us sees the other as a major competitor. Wenlin’s a document reader with a built-in dictionary while Pleco’s a dictionary with a built-in document reader.

This rings true from my own experience with the two: I use Wenlin when I’m at my computer, whether it’s for help with hard texts, character breakdowns, or character-to-pinyin conversions. I use Pleco when I’m out and about, for checking and looking up random words all day long, for saving them, and for doing sporadic flashcard review on the go. I can’t really see one replacing the other completely… at least not any time soon.

Final Verdict

Wenlin definitely needed an update. It’s not that the ABC Dictionary so badly needed the refresh, or that my life was incomplete without a clickable Shuowen Jiezi. A lot of us were starting to feel that the project had been abandoned. Even if I must continue to sadly shake my head at the UI, I’m going to use Wenlin regularly for the foreseeable future, and I won’t feel foolish anymore expecting future updates.

Access to the CDL may not be particularly useful to me at this point, but I’m very interested to see what Wenlin does with it. This could be huge. Add to that Wenlin’s recently announced move toward open-sourcing its code, and you’ve got a very powerful force emerging. The Shuowen Jiezi addition is great, even if it’s more scholarly than most students of Chinese need. The pieces are now in place for a mind-blowing UI update that really brings everything together.

I’m seriously looking forward to Wenlin’s future developments. In the meantime, I’m happy to use Wenlin 4.0, and I recommend it to learners. While Wenlin offers nothing absolutely essential for the beginner, it is so rich with organized, interlinked data that any learner planning to stick with Chinese for the long haul should go ahead and make the purchase now in order to get as much use out of it as possible.

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