The ABC Chinese Dictionary – A Worthy Dead-Tree Dictionary

Around a year ago I decided that I wanted to own a decent Chinese dictionary, not an electronic dictionary for my phone or iPod – A good old-fashioned, sturdy, reliable, paper dictionary.

At the time, all I had in my possession was a Pocket Oxford Chinese Dictionary, a gift from my parents when I first became interested in Chinese; and a humongous all-Chinese tome, which looked as though it had definitely seen better days.

The requirements for my new dictionary were that it had to combine the best parts of the aforementioned two – modern, yet comprehensive, but not so huge as to require a wheelbarrow to take to MOS Burger on study sessions. After reading tons of reviews, I ended up choosing what was, for me, the clear winner.

No bigger than a pound of cheese
The ABC Chinese-English, English-Chinese Dictionary met my needs exactly. It’s comprehensive, boasting a collection of almost 68,000 entries, yet it still maintains a slight stature by using wafer-thin, Bible-type paper and a very small font setting. As you can see from the image, the dictionary is no bigger than a one pound block of Emmental cheese. Having said that, you’d still have a tough time getting it into a pocket, so you’ll probably end up carrying it in your book bag. Compared to other so-called comprehensive Chinese dictionaries, though, it’s definitely a more friendly size. It’s also immediately distinguishable from most other dictionaries due to its bright yellow/orange colour.

Inside the dictionary there are about 60 to 100 entries per page side, a very efficient use of space to say the least. All of the entries include Pinyin, with some of them also including example sentences. However, while entries appear in both Simplified and Traditional characters, the examples sentences are Simplified only. One of the features that I like the most is the inclusion of a word-rating index. English entries are rated on a scale of 1 to 4 according to the 「大学英语教育大纲词汇表」 with the Chinese entries being rated on a similar scale, according to a list produced by “Chinese Specialists working under the auspices the PRC State Education Commission”.

ABC Dictionary Page

Another great feature is the labelling of free and bound characters. By this I mean those characters which can exist freely in single-character form and those which require a companion character to form a word. A good example is the character 女, while alone it does mean ‘woman’, though in modern, colloquial Chinese, another character must be added such as 生, 人 or 性.

The authors make a big point of telling you how the dictionary is ordered, in fact they’ve slapped a big label right on the front cover – 「电脑拼音编码」. This is how the ABC dictionary differs from most other Chinese dictionaries, it’s ordered alphabetically by Pinyin. Allow me to clarify using a rather crude example:

This is how the ABC dictionary would rank the following three terms.

dōng bù 東部 – eastern part
dòng wù 動物 – animal
dōng xī 東西 – thing

In most other dictionaries, ‘thing’ and ‘eastern part’ would be listed next to each other because they both start with 東. As you can see, ABC dictionary says no to this nonsense and instead worries only about the Pinyin. In all honesty, it’s hard to say if this actually increases usability or not, but I will say that it does take a little getting used to.

To summarize, I think they’ve done a great job at creating a reliable and comprehensive little, or not so little, dictionary. While there are more comprehensive dictionaries out there, you’ll be hard pressed to find one with so much information squeezed into such a small package.

Do you need a paper dictionary these days? Probably not. Is it nice to have one? In my opinion, yes it is. If you consider yourself a serious learner of Chinese then a good dictionary is always worth investing in. There are loads of other good ones out there, and I will always cherish my Chinese-Chinese tome, but for a great all-rounder I think the ABC Chinese-English, English-Chinese dictionary is a sensible choice.

* Editors note – some of the links contained in this article are Amazon affiliate links which help support the writer. No dictionaries were harmed in the writing of this post.

  • I’m interested to see what you think of the alphabetical Pinyin-ordering in the long term. At first thought it seems that characters related by meaning would be more useful grouped together than by Pinyin. Though if you know what you are looking for it could speed up searches.

  • Ken

    I have the ABC dictionary in my iOS iCED dictionary app, but I never noticed the entries were in toneless Pinyin order. I’m not much of a casual browser in that app, which explains my ignorance of that sorting. I’d still prefer tone-significant Pinyin order, but it obviously hasn’t affected me meaningfully.

  • The authors of the dictionary are quite well-known “reformists” of the language, so I think that’s why they choose to focus more on the pinyin.

    I would say it speeds up searches a little but it’s not a big deal.