The Contemporary Chinese Dictionary

The Contemporary Chinese Dictionary

by 中国社会科学院语言研究所词典编辑室 (Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, 2003)

Review by: Roddy

Basically, they’ve taken the 现代汉语词典, which is a pure Chinese-Chinese dictionary, translated the entries into English, and called it the 现代汉语词典(英汉双语版), or Contemporary Chinese Dictionary Chinese-English edition. So basically, what you have is a Chinese-Chinese dictionary AND a Chinese-English dictionary, with Chinese and English explanations next to each other for each Chinese headword.

The above-mentioned 现代汉语词典 is the work of the Dictionary Department of the Insitute of Linguistics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (中国社会科学院语言研究所词典编辑室). I think they license their work to anyone who wants it – the pure Chinese edition I use at work is published by the 商务出版馆 and this one by the 外语教学与研究出版社. I daresay there are other versions floating around.

There are a few additions to the Chinese edition. There are cultural / historical notes in some places, most notably for idioms where the tale behind the 4 characters is given, and historical events like the 八一南昌起义. Usage notes are given for some words, but not many – 把 has one, the note for 进行 points out that you can only use this for ‘formal and serious’ actions and that you can’t 进行 an lunchtime nap (although personally I take my naps very seriously). 八 has a note on pronunciation of the tone.

More interestingly, there is an additional section of 1200 new words and usages at the back of the book – 猎头 for headhunting, 平台 for (computer) platform, etc. It’d be interesting to go through these in detail, and there are many examples of English’s increasing encroachment, both phonetically and through direct translations: 派队,拉力赛 being ‘party’ and ‘rally’, 牛市 and 垃圾股 ‘bull market’ and ‘junk stocks’. It’s unfortunate though, that these are seperate and not integrated in the main dictionary. If you are looking it up in the dictionary then presumably you don’t know it’s new and will have to check both sections, as I did this morning with 回放 (rewind).

The limitation of this dictionary as a Chinese-English dictionary is that it is a translation, and as the preface says ‘not without its errors and oversights’. The English entries and example sentences can be stilted (‘I gave him some scolding and he harboured bitter resentment’), wrong (‘Peasants have shown greater enthusiasm for production now than since implementation of the policy’ – ‘since’ should be ‘before’, according to the Chinese) and sometimes bear a distinct ideological flavor (‘The death-defying exploits of the heroes serve to bring out the Chinese people’s noble unyielding character to best advantage’ in the ‘new’ section of all places). I would hesitate before endorsing the preface’s claim that it will “serve as a most useful reference for learners of English.”

However, the problems are not so bad that they would prevent an English-speaking student of Chinese from using the dictionary, and it may even provide some occasional amusement (“Eternal peace to Mr. So-and-So!”). In fairness, the preface makes it clear that the editors are aware of the shortcomings of the English.

For the Chinese learner, though, it should be OK. The Chinese entries are fine. Pinyin is given for the headword, though not the explanation. If you can’t understand the Chinese, there’s the English translation to look at. It might not be perfect, but you’ll be able to understand it.

I think this dictionary may fill a niche, but I’m not sure how big a niche. If you are currently using a Chinese-English dictionary and unsure about starting to use a Chinese-Chinese dictionary, then this, effectively a Chinese-(Chinese+English) dictionary, may make a nice stepping stone. You’d get practice reading the Chinese entries without the frustration of having to get your Chinese-English dictionary out or look up all the characters you don’t understand in the explanation. At the same time, the presence of that oh-so-friendly English may tempt you into ignoring the Chinese an inch above.

I’m not sure it would be of value to those who can use a Chinese dictionary with ease. The notes and extra explanations are useful, but less so than a specialized grammar book, idioms dictionary, etc. I might recommend it as a first / only dictionary, or if you thought the 1000+ ‘new’ entries were worth it, but if you are already using a Chinese dictionary or already have supplementary reference materials like grammar books and so on, I think you could quite happily do without.

One useful thing it does have, which I haven’t noticed before in a dictionary, is a table of Chinese radicals with their names. It doesn’t include all, but if you ever need to know that 写 has a 秃宝盖儿, it might come in handy.

I paid Y99.90 for this here in Beijing (the Chinese-Chinese version comes in at Y55). Binding seems solid, paper appears slightly better than average Chinese-printed dictionary, but you do still find yourself accidentally reading the reverse side of the page at times.

Pros: Chinese and English explanations side by side – never seen that before. Effort to explain cultural / historical background.

Cons: Dubious English.

Originally published on the Chinese Language and Culture Forums. Used with permission.


John Pasden

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


  1. Hi John,

    Is there a Chinese-English dictionary you would rate highly?



  2. The ABC Dictionary is constantly highly rated, and I use it myself very happily.

    The dictionary reviewed above also functions as a Chinese> English dictionary – it just happens to have the Chinese as well.


  3. Cheers, Roddy.

  4. Don’t waste your time in looking up chinese dictionaries. It is much faster and easier to use softwares with dictionary such as NJ star and Wenlin. My chinese has improved tremenduously ever since I switched over to these softwares. I spent less time in counting strokes and more time in actually learning the language. The software allows you to look up by pinying, radicals, or by hand written input with a pen mouse. With NJ star you could save a word with translation to a study list for later use. By switching over, you should be able to cut your time by at least 80%.

  5. Alwin, I’ve actually had the opposite experience.

    I started out using Wenlin and definitely learned a lot with it (especially using its flashcard tool). Lately, though, I’ve found myself wanting to read in places where I don’t have my computer at hand so I’ve been using a small Oxford paper dictionary. I’ve found that rather than being a burden, the extra time and effort necessary to look up a character in the radical index and then thumb through to the word actually helped reinforce what I was learning. I can look characters up very quickly in Wenlin, but I also forget them pretty quickly sometimes. When I really have to spend some time thinking about the character I’m looking up I feel that I retain it better. I also have an incentive to actively try to remember it, since I don’t want to go through the whole hassle over again. 😉

    John, thanks for the review. I picked one of these up in Beijing a few years ago. I prefer it to my Oxford dictionary, but it doesn’t see as much use only because it’s such a beast. It’s just too big for me to lug around town.


  6. Oops, on second glance I see it’s Roddy I should be thanking for this review. Thanks, Roddy! 😉

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