Last updated: August 7, 2017 at 12:21 pm
This article contains a list of several very useful public domain Chinese dictionaries for you to download completely free and legally. In a nutshell, public domain means that for any work the copyright of something has expired, and that you can basically do anything you want with it and usually get it for free.
Information about The Public Domain Chinese Dictionaries
All of these public domain dictionaries come from archive.org. There are actually quite a lot of public domain dictionaries on archive.org, but I have only included a few, the ones I found to be most interesting and useful. I have focused on mostly Mandarin dictionaries, though there are also Cantonese and Hakka public domain dictionaries on archive.org that you can download as well. As for the phonetics of these dictionaries, most of them use Wade-Giles system of romanization. Pinyin was developed in the 1950’s in Mainland China, but Wade-Giles romanization is much older than Pinyin. Taiwanese surnames and city names often are spelled in English using Wade-Giles romanizations instead of Pinyin. I have linked to the main pages of the dictionaries that you can download, in which you can download the dictionaries in many different formats: PDF, txt, EPUB, and more, though I recommend that you download the dictionaries in PDF format.
An English and Chinese pocket dictionary, in the Mandarin Dialect
by Foster, Arnold, Mrs
For English language speakers studying Mandarin, this is one of the most immediately useful dictionaries of this list. The dictionary is an English → Chinese dictionary sorted alphabetically by English words.
Recommended for : all levels (beginners – advanced)
This dictionary would be useful for anyone studying Mandarin Chinese.
Chinese and English Pocket Dictionary
by Stent, George Carter, 1833-1884
A very good dictionary sorted by Chinese radicals. This is one of my favourite dictionaries of this list. The dictionary only includes individual characters, sorted by Chinese radicals, but is of very high quality and very useful.
Recommended for: lower intermediate to advanced students
Because it is sorted by Chinese radicals, you need to actually know the radicals and how to search by radical, but this won’t be too difficult. This dictionary is probably not recommended for beginners.
A dictionary of colloquial idioms in the Mandarin dialect
by Giles, Herbert Allen, 1845-1935
This dictionary is extremely well made, and I would expect no less from one of the greatest Sinologists in history. Giles is one of the two men who invented the Wade-Giles system of romanizing Chinese into English.
Recommended for: intermediate to advanced students
This dictionary is sorted alphabetically by English word. I would only recommend this people with an intermediate or advanced knowledge of Chinese. Knowing idioms is not so important to be able to speak a language, though if you really want to become an expert in any language, it is important to know idioms.
First lessons in Chinese
by Yates, M. T
This book is actually a combination of a dictionary, grammar book, and a sort of traveller’s useful phrases book. To be honest, it is one of the most comprehensive, well written, and useful Chinese grammar resources that I have ever seen. Among the many things in the grammar book, it includes information about how to express yourself using different tenses in Chinese, such as perfect tense, pluperfect tense, and so on. The grammar section alone would be greatly useful to any student of Chinese. And the dictionary part of the book includes lots of very useful terms and exercises with verbs.
Recommended for: all levels (beginners – advanced)
One caveat that I would add about this is book that the transliterations of the Chinese characters are actually in the Shanghainese dialect. I have no knowledge of Shanghainese, and I imagine most people studying Chinese would be more interested in studying Mandarin or Cantonese. But, if you can ignore the transliterations, and just take the English and Chinese, the book is still incredibly useful.
Analytic dictionary of Chinese and Sino-Japanese
On the first page of the dictionary the author describes the purpose of the dictionary. “The present dictionary is intended to facilitate a systematic study – scientific and practical – of the Chinese script.” This dictionary is INCREDIBLY useful academically, and is made to be comprehensive study of Chinese regarding characters. The author gives lots of very interesting linguistic information, enough for you to truly become an expert in Chinese, if you so choose.
In addiction to definitions, the author gives explanations of the logic of characters, their etymologies, and information about the evolution of Chinese Characters. The first 34 or so pages gives linguistic and historical information about the Chinese language, including about Ancient Chinese, and the dictionary actually starts on page 35. For each character, there are 5 columns: The character, the Mandarin pronunciation, the Cantonese pronunciation, the Ancient Chinese pronunciation, and then sometimes the Japanese pronunciation with the actual definition in English, and sometimes, including etymology information of the character. The dictionary part is sorted alphabetically (according to the Wade-Giles system) basically by “base phonetics” and then followed by their derivatives. For example, if you search through the l’s for 蘭, you would find it by searching the Mandarin column eventually under lan. Then, immediately after that, derivatives of 蘭 would follow: such as 攔, 欄, and 瀾.
Recommended for: intermediate to advanced students
Though it is incredibly useful in terms of the knowledge it can acquired by reading this book, it isn’t very useful if you only want to learn to speak a little bit, or just want to get a cursory knowledge of Chinese. By which I mean, knowledge of the history of Chinese Characters isn’t necessary if you only want to be able to communicate, and you don’t need to know about etymological information if basic communication is all that you care about. But, for those who really love the Chinese language, and for people striving to become Sinologists, this book is one of the best sources of information on Chinese that you can find.
What did you think of this article? Do you know of any other great public domain Chinese dictionaries? Let’s discuss it in the comments below.