Change the Character Encoding for a Website

When browsing Chinese websites, you might come across some sites that appear to be just a garbled mess of random characters. This is really annoying, especially if you want to look words up in an online Chinese dictionary. Take the following example of the Taiwanese Government’s Idiom Dictionary website as viewed in Safari on the Mac. Clearly unreadable nonsense, the same is the case for Firefox 4, Google Chrome and IE8:

Idiom Dictionary Text Encoding

One of the main reasons this might happen is that the designer of the website didn’t specify the character encoding of the webpage, which means that your web browser has no idea how to display the text. This would be fine if you were in a Chinese speaking country and your browser was set by default to Chinese character encoding, but if you’re not then chances are your browser is set to your own country’s character encoding.

How to fix the problem

All you need to do is to tell the browser what the character encoding of the web page is. For instance, in Safari (scroll down for instructions for other browsers) all we have to do is go into the View menu and then under ‘Text Encoding’ choose ‘Traditional Chinese (Big5)’, or Simplified depending on which website you are trying to view:

Text Encoding

The site will now magically change and display the Chinese characters that you were expecting:

Correct Character Encoding

Browser Settings

It’s easy to change this setting no matter which browser you are using, and for each browser the instructions are very similar:

View -> Text Encoding

Firefox 4
View -> Character Encoding (then either turn on Auto Detect for Chinese, or choose a character encoding from the More Encodings list)

Internet Explorer 8
View -> Encoding -> Auto select

View -> Encoding -> (then either choose Auto Detect at the top, or pick out the encoding you want from the list)

6 responses to “Change the Character Encoding for a Website

  1. I have another problem other than this. I can read all Chinese websites all right cause I have set up the steps you mentioned above. But when I downloaded some Chinese books from a Hong Kong site, the characters turned out to be all scrambled, such as circles or squares or something unreadable. How do I fix this problem? I heard that it’s about encoding , have you any idea how to solve it ?

  2. Elodie,

    If the books are pdf, it might be that your pdf reader doesn’t have support for reading the characters. I recommend using Adobe Reader and making sure you have support for Simplified and Traditional characters installed.

    If they are executable programs (.exe files), I just recently found a solution. (These instructions are for Windows 7, but you should be able to find similar options on other Operating Systems.) Go to Control Panel > Clock, Language, Region > Region and Language. Under the ‘Administrative’ tab you will see an option ‘Language for non-Unicode Programs.’ It is most likely set to English on your computer. Click on Change System Locale to the region where you reside. I’m in Beijing so I changed mine to Chinese (Simplified, PRC), and now I am able to read all those programs that my company installed on my computer that used to come up as gibberish before. Hope that works!

    Dave, love the site. This post was particularly helpful for me, as I now use it all the time!

  3. i have met the same problem. but i did what u taught, it did not fix the problem. i went to the encoding, clicked the chinese simplied, also choose the auto-select, but the webpage was still all scrambled. i do not how to fix my problem

    1. Hi Bessy,
      If possible can you post the website?
      Do you know what language the website is supposed to be in?
      If you let me know the above info, I’ll see if I can help.

  4. Hi there,

    I come across this site, and need to resolve Chinese characters (my boss is from China). He uses webmail, but when receiving emails (straight from mainland China), the characters are not totally readable?! Some are just ??????, but I’ve already tried everything from changing the unicode inside the “Language & Regional option” to altering the encode inside the browser…in vain. Please help, thank you in advance.

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