Is there a website where I can look for history and etymology of Chinese characters? For example 工.

It can be a Chinese website (I am VERY new to Chinese). But better in English.

Please also drop any useful links you regularly used when starting to learn.

Or let's say, how do Chinese understand this: 极 [jí] (extreme)?

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    Please only use zdic (for historical definitions) and 漢語多功能字庫 (for modern and fairly well researched explanations), as given by Eamin Zhang and 水巷孑蠻's answers. The others have very inaccurate information.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 17:47
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    Does this answer your question? What etymology dictionaries are available?
    – Wes
    Commented Dec 25, 2021 at 18:36

5 Answers 5


The Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters, when it's finally ready, will be a user-friendly reference about the etymology of Chinese characters, together with mnemonics that can help learning them. The great thing about it is that it is going to be based on modern etymology scholarship, in contrast to many other resources that are based either folk etymology or on Shuowen Jiezi, which contains explanations that are not necessarily correct.



This website gives origins for many characters, as well as pictures of some earlier forms (e.g., from Oracle bones). Keep in mind that the structure of most characters is a phonetic and a semantic component put together (形声字). Most characters aren't pictograms (象形字), ideograms (指事字), or semantic combinations of other characters (会意字); although these types of characters have most captured the western imagination.

Also, etymology is a bit of a misnomer, as that would be for morphemes and words, not their graphical representation. It is, however, commonly called this.


This online dictionary seems the right tool for you http://www.zdic.net/ It looks up the character's definition in several modern and ancient dictionaries, you can also see how the pronunciation and writing has evolved over thousands of years, being different today between mandarin and dialects, traditional and simplified.


May I suggest 漢語多功能字庫, maintained by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which has a Chinese/English interface, shows character in various scripts, components and pronunciations; and explains etymologies.



Stumpy Joe Pete linked to arguably the best website for looking at historical forms of characters.

Another website tool that exists, but that is only sort of useful, is zhongwen.com, for exploring the composition of many characters. It organizes characters in a tree but this is strictly about formal character composition, not history. Here's an example.

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