How to Use a Chinese Character Dictionary (Okpyeon)

Shilyong Okpyeon


Those learning Classical Chinese (漢文, 한문, Hanmun), and even those just learning Chinese characters (漢字, 한자, Hanja), should invest in an in print Chinese Character dictionary, known as Okpyeon (玉篇, 옥편) in Korean. The dictionary need not be an expensive one: the one this blogger uses is called Practical Great Character Dictionary (實用大玉篇, 실용대옥편), pictured above, and costs 24,000 Won (about $22). Although there are online dictionaries such as Naver and Daum, it is still beneficial to own an in print dictionary and know how to use it. This is because online dictionaries do not have all the useful information about a Chinese character. The following is a character entry in this printed dictionary:

Example Entry

Included in this dictionary entry are:

  1. its pronunciation(s) written in Hangul;
  2. the tone and rime; 
  3. different definitions described in Korean and in Classical Chinese;
  4. excerpts from Chinese Classics where the character is used; and
  5. character in different script styles.

Other in print dictionaries may have the character’s stroke order and banjeol (反切, 반절). In contrast, online Korean dictionaries typically do not have tone, rimebanjeol, and different definitions in Classical Chinese. They might list the pronunciation in Mandarin, but as mentioned in a previous post the tones and rimes of Mandarin are not the same as the ones in Classical Chinese. 

This blog post will cover first the organization of a Chinese character dictionary and then go through examples on how to navigate and find a character within the dictionary.

Organization of the Dictionary

There are a variety of Chinese character dictionaries; however, they are usually organized in the same manner. Characters are indexed by:

  1. Radical, Busu (部首, 부수);
  2. Total number of strokes, Chonghoek (總劃, 총획); and
  3. Pronunciation in Hangul order (i.e., 가나다), Ja’eum (字音, 자음).

Radical Index

The radical index (部首索引, 부수색인) lists all the radicals by the number of strokes. There are 214 radicals. Some dictionaries may list more classifications, but the following is the conventional classification.

Radical Index

Number of Strokes Index

The number of strokes index (總劃索引, 총획색인) lists all the characters in the dictionary by the number of total strokes. This section is perhaps for last resort, when users are unable to determine which radical the character falls under.

Number of Strokes Index

Pronunciation Index

The pronunciation index (字音索引, 자음색인) lists all the characters in the dictionary by their pronunciation in Hangul alphabetical order (i.e., 가나다).

Pronunciation Index

Step-by-Step Guide

There are two different situations that call for two different methods of navigating a Chinese character dictionary: (1) when the pronunciation of the character is known; and (2) when the pronunciation is not known.

If the Pronunciation is Known

If the pronunciation of the character is known, then finding the character is very simple: (1) first, go to the pronunciation index (字音索引, 자음색인) and find the character listed under the pronunciation written in Hangul; and (2) finally go to the page indicated. For example, take the character 殼, which is pronounced “gak” (각) in Korean.

1. Find the Character in the Pronunciation Index

The pronunciation index lists characters in Hangul order. The index indicates that the character  殼 is on page 362, shown in Chinese numerals.

Pronunciation Index Example

2. Go to the Page Indicated

Surely enough, the character is listed on page 362. The dictionary entry shows that 殼(각) rimes with the character 覺(각), which is also pronounced “gak.” It also shows that the character has four different meanings: “shell” or “skin” (껍질, 皮也); “to hit” (내리치다, 打也) ; “originally” (본디, 素也); and “foundation” (바탕, 物之質).

Pronunciation Example 2

If the Pronunciation is Not Known

On the other hand, if the pronunciation of the character is not known, then finding the character is not as simple. In this case, to find the character: (1) first find the radical of the character and look it up in the radical index; (2) and determine the number of the strokes of the character. For this example, take the character 斷.

1. Find the Radical of the Character in the Radical Index

A radical is a component of Chinese character, and may appear in any position of the character. For the character  斷, the radical is 斤, which appears on the right.

Character Dan

To find the radical in the radical index, determine the number of strokes of the radical. In this case, the number of strokes is 4.

Stroke Order Geun

The radical index lists out the radicals by the number of strokes and indicates which page number it starts. As seen in this dictionary, the radical 斤 is listed under four strokes (四畫, 4획), and starts on page 306.

Radical Example 1

2. Determine the Number of Strokes of the Character Minus the Radical

First, go to the page indicated by the Radical Index, which in this case is page 306. Note that dictionary is organized not only by the radical, but is further divided by the number of strokes of the character minus the radical. In the example below, 斥 has one more stroke than 斤 and thus is listed under one stroke (一畫, 1획).

Radical Example 2To find 斷, the number of strokes minus the number of strokes of the radical must be determined. Writing out the character may help in figuring out the number of strokes. For 斷, the total number of strokes minus the radical is 14 (18-4 = 14).

Radical Example 4Next, go to the section with 14 strokes under the radical 斤. Unfortunately, there is no index for where this section start in this dictionary, and the user has the traverse through the section until he finds the correct number of strokes section. The character 斷 appears in the 14 strokes (十四畫, 14획) section. In the dictionary entry, this character is listed as having the pronunciation “dan” (단), but has two rimes, “han” 旱(한) and “han” (翰, 한). The definitions are further subdivided based on the rimes. The first definition listed as riming with 旱 indexed under “一” is “to cut” (끊다, 截也). The first definition listed as riming with 翰 indexed under “二” is “to decide” (결단하다, 決也).

Radical Example 3

Nota Bene: Some characters consist of more than one radical that appears in the radical index. For instance, the character 坡(파) has two radicals: 土(토) and 皮(피). The “default” radical, where the character will be indexed, is usually the one the left or at the top position of the character. Some dictionaries will list the character multiple times for those multiple radicals. In such dictionaries, the full entry for that character will be indexed under the default index; entries in all other radical sections besides will merely indicate which page the user should go to.


Even though there are online dictionaries, it is still beneficial for those learning Classical Chinese or even just Chinese characters to know how to use a Chinese character dictionary. It not only gives information not available in online dictionaries, but as evident in the guide above also helps develop other pertinent skills such as writing characters and understanding how characters are constructed.

  1. Alex said:

    Do you know where to find this dictionaries in Korea? I tried in Kyobo but they didnt have any I believe.

    • 歸源 said:

      Really? I bought mine from one of the larger Kyobo bookstores (I think either the one by Gwanghwamun or Gangnam).

      You could also try to buy it online.

  2. Greg said:

    Thanks for these great posts! This is actually really useful for me, as it is something I’ve been getting more interested in studying.

    Although this isn’t completely related, I recently put up a post regarding Classical Chinese primers. If you’re interested, feel free to take a look!

    I could certainly use a dictionary like that, I hope I can find something like that in Taiwan. Do you know where it might be available online?

    • 歸源 said:

      I am not too sure where you’d find something like this in print in Taiwan, or China. As for finding one online, I’m not aware of any Korean online dictionaries that have the same amount of information as print ones, but you could try to Kangxi Dictionary. There are various versions online, as listed in the External Links section of its Wiki page:

      • Greg said:

        Thanks a lot for your suggestion!

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