Wenlin 3.0

I finally got my hands on Wenlin 3.0 for “trial purposes” recently. Brendan at Bokane.org has been singing its praises for some time (he even co-wrote a glowing software review), so I’ve really wanted to try it out for some time now. I’ve used NJStar and 金山词霸 (Jinshan Ciba) before, so those were my references for this kind of software.

I don’t intend to do a lengthy review examining every aspect of the software; I just want to do a quick comparison of the major differences between these three pieces of doftware.

NJStar Chinese Word Processor 4.35


NJStar also has a Asian language viewer, but it’s been rendered pretty much completely unnecessary with internationalization advancements in Windows and other operating systems. The main draw is the word processor.

I’ve always found the dictionary that comes with the NJStar word processor to be virtually useless. NJStar’s saving grace is its radical lookup method. It consists of a chart containing all possible radicals (and even some that aren’t technically official). You click on the radicals within the character that you can identify. Here’s the good part: It doesn’t matter if they’re the character’s main radical or not. With each radical you identify, the list of possible matches at the top grows shorter until you can easily pick out the character. You can also limit matches by total number of strokes.

NJStar Chinese Word Processor’s radical lookup method is the best by far of any software I have seen. Everywhere else it’s lacking, however.

[Note: Available also for Japanese.]

金山词霸 (Jinshan Ciba)

Jinshan Ciba

Jinshan Ciba is clearly meant for Chinese users. For this reason, beginners will find it frustrating. Instructions are all in simplified Chinese, and pinyin isn’t readily available (although you can double click individual characters within the program to look them up and get a pinyin reading).

Jinshan Ciba’s selling point is that it’s not merely a stand-alone dictionary, but can also work in conjunction with other software. If you have Jinshan Ciba running in the background, you can set it to display little popup translations for any words on the screen. It’s great for surfing the web, but works in various kinds of software as well. It does English-Chinese as well as Chinese-English, and if the short popup definition isn’t enough, you can take it to the main dictionary for a more extensive definition.

Jinshan Ciba is best suited to intermediate to advanced learners. It’s also most easily found on the streets of China (for less than $1). But it does have some strong points that no other software I have seen duplicates.

Wenlin 3.0


One of Wenlin’s strong suits is its pinyin support, which makes it best suited to beginning students. I found it annoying how sample sentences for entries are written entirely in pinyin (no characters), but I know this is exactly what beginning students need.

Wenlin’s dictionary is also superb. It provides character entries in multiple fonts, even with etymology. It includes stroke order for each character, as well as other useful features such as “list characters containing this character as a component,” “list words containing this character,” and “list words starting with this character.” Extras such as the “components” (which can be looked up themselves, even if they are not full characters) and Cantonese reading are really cool too. The only detraction is, once again, a slight tendency to favor pinyin over actual characters.

Once text is pasted into Wenlin, it’s great for looking up unknown words. It does what Jinshan Ciba does, only with a much better dictionary and a little more work.

In conclusion, I would go with Wenlin as my main computer dictionary, but would want NJStar if I were going to be looking up a lot of completely unfamiliar characters. Jinshan Ciba is great for casual browsing of Chinese, or if you’re running a Chinese operating system and other Chinese programs for which you may need help reading.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. As an advanced beginner, I’m extremely happy with Wenlin. It provides everything that I had ever wanted back in my first year of character struggle, including character look-up, etymology and flashcards. My only complaint is that it’s hard to micro-customize the (otherwise excellent) flashcard system.

  2. I haven’t had a chance to play with Wenlin that much yet, but I do agree with you on NJStar. I keep it around on my work and home computers, just for the radical lookup method — it’s indispensable for looking up strange words I find in my SMS inbox. Although, if you can recognize the official construction of the character, http://www.zhongwen.com works pretty well.

  3. For Linux users, folks who for some reason can’t install software, and for when you’re away from your own computer, allow me to plug a little something I whipped up.


    This is a web-based tool that annotates electronic Chinese text. Hover the mouse over words to see pinyin and definitions. No flashcards, no radical lookup or study aids, but good for reading newspaper articles and short paragraphs of text.

  4. Great post, John! I enjoyed hearing about NJStar since I’ve never had experience with it.

    A few thoughts:
    Wenlin provides an effective way to look up characters that you don’t know how to pronounce. That is its “brush tool”.

    I bought an “international version” of Jinshan Ciba (also called Kingsoft Powerword) about two years ago that does have English instructions. I agree with everything you said about it. It has a flaw that I wonder whether they fixed in later versions. When a multi-character word starts at the end of a line and is split between lines, my version never recognizes the characters on the second line.

    I look forward to your future detailed review of Wenlin. I have used Wenlin daily for the last three years and I love it. If I need dictionary help with Chinese web pages, I always paste the text into Wenlin, rather than use Jinshan Ciba. The dictionary is just so much more powerful in Wenlin. There are a lot of other ways it is helpful to me that I won’t go into now.

    My main use of Jinshan Ciba for the last year is for English to Chinese dictionary work when I am writing in Chinese. Also, most English words in the Jinshan Ciba dictionaries have several sample sentences in both English and Chinese which is very helpful.

  5. I really love Wenlin… I got the 2.0 off the net first, and that was great, then I finally managed to get the 3.0 and that was even better, since the dictionary got a lot bigger (2.0 didn’t even have such simpl words as oumeng (EU) or yaogun (rock))… Suddenly I could read news articles off the net easy as that, and I was reading Ba Jin’s “Jia” (a real Chinese modern classic) and really enjoying it… I also believe this is a very natural way of learning language, seeing a character repeated again and again, you learn it, without having to do drills and exercises.

    The flashcard system is very poor however (I’ve seen a system leylop uses for looking up English words, and it allows her to very conveniently save all the words she’s looked up, so that she can later practice them – if she looked it up, it was because she didn’t know it right? :)) With Wenlin, you can only practice single characters, and even that is quite weak. Also, I am not crazy about the design (although it got a lot better, at least we got nice fonts in 3.0), and I would love it if I were able to use it as a module in reading webpages etc, directly. And if there was a “book reading” mode, where text files could be shown in two pages that could be flipped – when reading long text files, I hate scrolling down.

    But anyway, an amazing product. Together with the electronic dictionary I bought that recognizes handwriting, I am all set!:)


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  7. I like Wenlin’s functionality, but its interface is horrible. Anyone who uses non-standard interface elements when there are standard ones that will do should be shot in the knees.

  8. John B – I think Wenlin’s choice of interface elements is so that they can use the same interface toolkit across platforms. I imagine it’d also work well under WINE in Linux, though that’s just a guess and I haven’t tried it.

    I agree about the flashcard feature of Wenlin being limited – the one-character at a time limitation kind of kills that feature’s usefulness for me, although to be honest I tend not to use flashcards all that much.

    The use of pinyin for example sentences is annoying, but if you mouseover the pinyin, you’ll get the characters. Another very nice feature in the latest update (3.1.9, I think) is that if you enlarge the character lookup pane at the bottom of the window and hold down Control when you mouseover a compound, you’ll see not only the definition for that compound, but also the definitions for the individual characters. Way useful.
    One big peoblem with Wenlin is the disparity between its E-C and C-E dictionaries: as a text-reader and HanYing dictionary, it’s great; as an YingHan dictionary it’s almost useless. I tend to use a combination of Jinshan Ciba and Wenlin – although I actually think that Jinshan Ciba’s YingHan dictionary, while OK and very good for technical terms, has an unpleasant tendency to go for explanations rather than translations.

  9. Oh, and as for character lookup – you can do the same radical/component lookup in Wenlin as you can in NJStar.
    Another truly bizarre lookup option is the ability to look up a character by its hexadecimal Unicode character index number. I can’t see that being useful except perhaps to some highly strange people.

  10. Brendan,

    Are you sure the radical lookup method in Wenlin is the same as NJStar’s?? If it has it, I can’t find it. Are you thinking of Wenlin’s “List: Characters containing components” function? If so, it’s not nearly as good (and convenient) as NJStar’s graphical lookup interface.

  11. Has anyone ever seen Winlin on sale anywhere in Shanghai (as in for 7 kaui)? I just checked out the trial version and it looks great, but $200? That’s like a third of my monthly salary. Any help is much appreciated.

  12. I can confirm that Wenlin 3.0 works with Wine on Linux, with minimal setup. (I am running Mandrake 10 Community, 2.6 kernel, latest Wine (March 2004), and the CrossoverOffice support files). Download Crossover Office (google) and put your wenlin files in their fake windows catalogue (I tried running it directly from my mounted NTFS catalogue, but it was mounted read only and made wine die).

    Bugs: Whenever you open a file, Wenlin looses contact with the dictionary files and the dictionary is unfunctional for the rest of the session. A pain in the butt, but Wenlin can be started with a file as a command line parameter, so it’s liveable. Also, I haven’t been able to make copying Chinese characters from Wenlin to Linux programmes work, might be a setup in Wine. Anyhow, to me Wenlin is absolutely essential, and this makes it possible for Linux to be my main operating system, which is quite exiciting. I haven’t used it for long yet, but so far, apart from the bugs mentioned above, Wenlin seems very stable, almost quicker than under WinXP, and since it uses its own fonts, the looks are exactly the same.


  13. John, I’ve found Dr. Eye to be BY FAR the most useful Chinese software tool. It has one mode in which all you have to do is drag the cursor over ANY Chinese word and it will pop-up a translation. It’s like having your Chinese tooltips on everything you see on the web, and everything in your OS. I’ve frequently used it to do hardware troubleshooting and other things that would have taken hours otherwise (you can’t highlight a lot of the Chinese in Windows).

    Incidentally, it has Japanese too.

  14. Mark,

    Interesting that you should mention Dr. Eye. I just discovered it a few weeks ago. A Taiwanese friend introduced it to me. It looks pretty decent… like a Taiwanese version of 金山词霸 (by Kingsoft).

    Like Jinshan Ciba, though, it has some funny definitions and glaring omissions. A good tool, but not an authoritative source.

  15. Really!!? You’ve found a bunch of funny definitions? Honestly, that shocks me. I’ve been using it for a couple of years and haven’t ever come across any. Or maybe I have and I speak really strangely as a result, and nobody mentions it to me. Are you sure it’s not just Taiwanese/mainland differences?

    Maybe I’ll have to check out Wenlin if not…

  16. much appreciate the comparison post and responses between the programs. I’ve been looking at purchasing Wenlin and NJStar to figure out what differences/usefulness. Any significant changes in programs since original 2004 post? Thanks

  17. Tseming — Wenlin has released several updates, but they’re mostly minor feature additions (like using regular expressions in search) and bug fixes. Don’t know about NJStar, but I don’t think they update much.

  18. The new version of NJStar 5.0, has much improved learner functions, such as the automatic generation of a vocab list from any text. It also has Wenlin-like annotations. Still Wenlin’s ABC dictionary and the etymology makes it uniquely valueable. On the desktop, that is. For the PDA, we have PlecoDict. The price at $200 is too steep, though. I wonder if Wenlin’s Tom Bishop is going to cut prices any time soon with all the competition from free Wenlin clones like Wakan and DimSum.

  19. John, I LOVE Wenlin. First: like the NJstar package you mentioned, you can search for characters in Wenlin using any component too. For example if you are looking for 国 you can bring up 玉 and ask it to show you all characters – and there are 60,000+ in this package – that contain that. But the dictionary behind it is so extensive, with 200,000 words, so be warned that many words in this dictionary are not known to the average Chinese. The entry for 三字经 claims that, in addition to meaning a Three-Character Classic, it is also slang for an expletive – what we in English would call a 4-letter word. If you think about it, a lot of Chinese expletives are 3 characters, but no one in Kunming has heard of this use of 三字经. There are many, many other examples of words in this package that just are not commonly known among Chinese. Good for reading literature, but some indication should have been made that those words were rare, so that you don’t try to use them in speech. “In my humble opinion” according to Wenlin is 窃以为, but this is another word that my Chinese friends do not know!! Otherwise it could have been a good IMHO equivalent. You are right about the pinyin in Wenlin. This is NOT because Wenlin is designed for early learners of Chinese, but because John DeFrancis at the University of Hawaii, the ultimate inspiration for the ABCD dictionary, was a pinyin enthusiast who strongly believed that Chinese could and should be written in pinyin and that the characters should be abolished. I still don’t see how I could understand chengyu with ancient characters with rare meanings in unless I could actually see the characters used, but it is a redundant debate anyway, as China is keeping the hanzi. I think Wenlin can be connected to a “pen” attachment, allowing you to handwrite rare characters and search for them that way. Certainly, a Palm Pilot with a pen can be used that way with the ABCD dictionary.

  20. Other benefits of Wenlin, are it’s native support for traditional characters, and the super handy feature of transcribing full articles into pinyin (with the occasional minor user input involved).

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