MDBG Online Dictionary – My review

See also MDBG Online Dictionary – Tutorial

Having looked at most of the major online Chinese-English dictionaries, there is absolutely no contest as to which is the best for laowai trying to learn Chinese.

There are two ways to get to the MDBG Chinese-English dictionary: (easier to remember)

While it might be confusing to get past the first screen, the actual user interface is by far the simplest out there. Other dictionaries are so cluttered I sometimes don’t know where to type my query.


  1. Simple, easy-to-use interface
  2. You can input English, pinyin, or hanzi characters in the same box (even at the same time) without switching modes
  3. Accepts wildcards (*) when searching for a word (e.g. “chin*” gives you results including “China” and “Chinese”)
  4. Shows all entries containing your search or you can group (with “quotation marks”) and or limit your search to exact matches
  5. Pronounces pinyin syllables in an audio file (no need to download an extra plug-in)
  6. Shows Cantonese pronunciation (Yale and Jyutping) for every hanzi character
  7. Scissors tool that let’s you see literal translation for every hanzi character in an entry
  8. You can then select one hanzi character and see every entry that uses that character
  9. Hanzi “sentence mode” that will translate every word in a big string of characters
  10. Shows and recognizes traditional and simplified hanzi characters for every entry
  11. Shows radicals needed to write each hanzi character
  12. Shows stroke order and direction for each hanzi character (very useful if you want to write a new character)
  13. Anyone can submit new entries or corrections to the dictionary. And my experience has been that they are actually reviewed and incorporated.
  14. There are also a few other tools I never use including: hanzi character quiz, text annotation, and character encoding and converting for web pages

Weaknesses (a very weak list)

  1. Redundancy and messiness. Because users can submit entries there are some redundancies and messy entries . For example searching for “potato” shoes two different entries for “shǔ” is it or is it ? Either one’s a mistake, or one is the traditional character, or there really are two different characters for the exact same thing. I wish I knew.
  2. Limited vocabulary. It’s, of course, a weakness of every dictionary. But just a warning that this dictionary doesn’t have some English words (e.g. “obsequious”) and doesn’t recognize some Chinese compound words (wūhēi 乌黑= dark, but it just told me the separate entries “crow” and “dark” without knowing it’s a compound word)
  3. Which word should I choose? Again, this is a common problem to most dictionaries. There are so many synonyms, it’s impossible to know, for example, which or the words for “stubborn” is the one people really use (it seems to be gùzhí 固执 by the way).

Wish List

  1. Added!Added! Total results count. And it’s even at the top of the page so I can cancel the search if I see “A billion results found.”
  2. Added!Added! “Remember me” checkbox so I don’t have to type my email address every time I submit an entry or correction.
  3. Added!Added! Login for “Editor Account”. It would be cool if those of us who are doing a lot of correcting and adding to the dictionary could have some sort of login that remembered our email address and even let us view pending corrections in case we have to correct the corrections.
  4. Added!Added! “Did you mean…” link if I misspell something (like what Google does). I know, I’m lazy. But it would be nice.
  5. Isolated pinyin, hanzi, and English output. When I throw a bunch of hanzi into the dictionary the results are displayed in 3 columns (hanzi, pinyin, English). If I just want to copy the pinyin results to another place I have to do it word by word. I would love to have the pinyin all in one place to copy away. You can get the English all in one place using the translation tool, but the pinyin is still kind of inaccessible for mass copying.
  6. Proverb dictionary. Chinese people use a whole host of common little proverbs and idioms, often four words long. While this dictionary has some (e.g. “mǎ mǎ hū hū 马马虎虎”), it would be nice if it could incorporate a comprehensive proverb dictionary to include phrases like:
    • xìng zāi lè huò 幸灾乐祸= laughing at other people’s disaster (German “schadenfreude”)
  7. Scientific/medical dictionary. It would be nice if the dictionary contained all kinds of medical terms such as “cortisone” or “hydrogen peroxide.” Those can be very difficult to track down elsewhere.
  8. Common use rating for Chinese words. The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English shows “S1000” or “W3000” to mean “one of the top 1000 spoken words” and “one of the top 3000 written words,” respectively. It would be a real coup if this dictionary had the same capability. Then we would know which word to choose from the dozens of synonyms.
  9. Categories. In lieu of common use ratings, if the users had the ability to add usage categories to each word (e.g. “Medical,” “City name,” “Measure word,” etc.) it would help differentiate the myriad synonyms. Also, it would clean up the formatting of the entries which, presently, may or may not include that information.
  10. Sorting for results. For example when I display all the words that contain “han” I want to be able to sort by hanzi, pinyin, or English. Right now it’s all wily-nilly.

22 Replies to “MDBG Online Dictionary – My review”

  1. Hi!! First of all, thanks a lof for your blog… It´s very useful and I just feel much better knowing that there´s someone else trying to learn Chinese and having the same problems I have.

    On the other hand, what about the dictionary at Isn´t it also quite good??

    Thanks again!!

  2. dani,

    Thanks for the comment. Ya that dictionary looks ok too. The only advantage it has (that I can see) over MDBG is the option to display hanzi as .gif images so you don’t have to install a Chinese language pack.

    But I think it’s a little harder to use because you have to choose what you’re searching for (i.e. English, pinyin, hanzi).

    It also doesn’t have the little scissors tool (that I love). And, it seems to have fewer entries than the MDGB one.

  3. I too find this dictionary useful, although I get frustrated that it distinguishes happily enough between Traditional and Simplified characters, it does not do the same for English. So, for example, if I look for the Standard English word “colour” I get just three entries, not including a word for “colour” itself, but then if I remember to re-spell the word in its US variant, I get many more entries, not including the three I originally got. On the other hand, it does sometimes have awareness of English meanings (as opposed to American), and so for example it can tell the difference between a bathroom and a toilet, which US English normally seems to have difficulty with, but is weaker on other words, such as the difference between “alternate” and “alternative”, and between “pants” and “trousers”.

  4. Actually, as far as usefulness is concerned, for me it’s a toss-up between MDBG and

    I use both everyday.

    I’m studying Chinese quite intensively these days, especially Hanzi. Recently, my oral Chinese has started stagnating (the extent of my vocabulary especially), after nearly 3 years in China (Shandong). I felt therefore it might be a good idea to start seriously tackling characters in order to make some progress overall. While studying, I am constantly looking up words on both sites (with the use of their respective search engine plugins for Firefox).

    Anyway, the big (BIG) advantage of is that it provides insight into where characters come from, into what their constituent parts are, and as such, where the meaning comes from. It really makes remembering hanzi much easier. The disadvantage is that it’s mainly geared towards students of the traditional way of writing (although the site shows simplified character alongside the traditional ones, it often does not explain how the simplified character came into being). I also find it’s lookup mechanisms rather lacking (for example: there’s no way to search for the meaning of a character directly, you’re limited to English and pinyin and the pinyin search results are often less than satisfying). It provides its answers in gif images only, which makes it impossible to copy characters/explanations or search through a page. But still, as far as understanding Chinese characters is concerned, it is by far the best resource for me.

    MDBG, on the other hand, is excellent for quick lookups as well as for finding the exact stroke order and stroke direction of a character (especially with the Java tool that debuted this week). I also love using this site to find exhaustive lists of every word a certain character appears in. It really helps when doing some vocabulary building.

    Anyway, this is a great blog. Keep up the good work.

  5. Hi, I love never seen on the web elsewhere the “Type Chinese” feature, especially the one with english translations. However, it could be improved to have pinyin tones.

  6. My 11 yr old is learning Mandarin. Since we moved to the outback of Australia I now have to tutor her.. as I don’t read or speak the language your site has been a wonderful find for us. Do you know of any sites catering for children. Over the last two years I have been using this site I have seen many changes keep up the great work..Thanks

  7. christine,

    I’m glad you’re finding useful stuff here. The only website I’m currently aware of that might be remotely children-oriented is because it has a lot of pictures on some of the lessons.

    Otherwise, if someone is going to China, there are a lot of pinyin + CD children’s story books for sale in the bookstores in most major cities that might also be good. I don’t know if they’re available for mail order.

    Maybe someone else knows of good children’s resources online…?

  8.’s extra information about the roots of traditional chinese characters is a great. It really helps with understanding of how the written language has been formed. I like the character trees because I can easily find characters that share the same radical. The site hasn’t changed much in a long time and a few more characters would be good.

    How simplified Chinese characters were developed is explained well in wikipedia.

  9. What I find amazing is how many people overlook the most useful function of MDBG. Even within your fine tutorial you completely sidestep it. Dictionaries on a whole are not all that useful. Even the expensive ones on the Net produce strange results in my opinion. After translating a sentence or paragraph or much longer text; MDBG produces on a separate page the resultant translation (which is mediocre). However, as one scrolls down the page a virtual gold mine of valuable resources appears. The main pitfall of this invaluable resource is to be found in the eccentric dictionary phenomena I mentioned above. I spend countless hours using MDBG. In the past I even requested to purchase the whole package. I happen to write Western style poems using Chinese. Obviously, IF I send some of these to you; you could easily critique them until the cows came in. MDBG is also very useful to quickly annotate and segment Chinese texts along with some help with Cheng Yu. Dictionaries and translation software are what they are. Before MDBG I certainly could not do what I am able to do now. Even Transwhiz or Systran is incapable of performing this simple but essential task! Lastly, please do not consider my enthusiasm for MDBG to be considered cocky or proud.

  10. Jim,

    I don’t know what you mean. Would you mind slapping a link to that tool in a comment so we can all see what you’re talking about?

  11. When you reach the main page. You then click to enter the main tools page. I then click on Translate. Which brings up another page with a window so that I may enter my text. The translation is done via an outside link. I would be very interested to know if this PHP script or whatever could harness another software engine such as Transwhiz or Systran. Then the resulting translation is shown. (mediocre in usage) Below the translation is the area that I find most useful. There is another tool – to Annotate the text. but again I do not find this so useful either. And simple segmentation already exists within the Annotate tool. However, having segmentation, annotation, chinese characters along with possible english meanings is quite useful for my projects and purposes. I have noticed that my constant usage of this tool has increased my reading ability. It also has enhanced my passive learning and memory for Chinese characters. By the way, I use this tool for several hours a day. My only complaint is concerning the english meanings given or the lack of insufficient vocabulary range. Obviously, I do not have the ability nor the desire to build a better mouse trap. So I am content and satisfied to use what is available. Here is a link to yet another useful dictionary.
    I would post my western style Chinese poems but most blogs are blocked by China.

  12. Its very gratifying to read an excellent review of MDBG Online Dictionary. I have been using it for years and it keeps getting better and better.

  13. MDBG is supremely helpful, I agree. It is great to see it recognized here!

    I too was frustrated at the Internet’s general lack of a dedicated Chinese Idiom database, so I made one.

    I am very interested in Chinese Idioms, and though I can almost never remember the appropriate idiom at opportune times, I enjoy reading and learning about them.

    The database allows three methods of search:

    Search for an idiom using the idiom itself – for times when you see an idiom somewhere, can copy the idiom’s characters, but haven’t been able to find a translation.

    Search for idioms by the English meaning – for times when you _know_ there exists a Chinese Idiom with meaning x (you’ve seen it before), but can’t remember the characters/pronunciation.

    And my personal favourite (and the main reason I created this database): search for idioms by keyword! Want to see all idioms somehow linked to swords? Boats? Love? Yellow? What to find an idiom with the character “”? If the user who entered the idiom included your keyword when they added their idiom, then you’ll find it!

    Users can edit idioms they entered into the database, but not others. This is to protect each user’s work. If a user wishes, they may apply for full admin permission, allowing that user to modify any idiom.

    It is quite small at the moment (I’m adding idioms as fast as I can, but I _do_ have exams coming up), but I’m hoping that people will register and help me build it up.

    I’d really appreciate it if anyone would take a look:

    _Any_ comments, criticism, bug reporting, suggestions, notifications of possible security flaws or (most of all) contributions would be most appreciated.

    Thanks for reading, and 加油!

  14. I’m looking for a stripped-down English-Pinyin dictionary to use on my Palm T/X. I downloaded a small one, but when I’m out and about, it just doesn’t have enough words. Is there one that’s say a third or a fifth the size of CEDICT without the chinese characters that I can download and scroll through?

  15. If you’re willing to fork up some cash, I’d recommend this one:
    The Professional Bundle has over 200,000 entries in it and a lot of other nice features too. It should work on a Palm T/X.

    (no I don’t work for Pleceo, I just like the product:P)

  16. Thank you for the information about mandarin online dictionary. Mandarin is now one of my daughter school lesson. I’m totally blind about this language. I am fully counted on dictionary.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.