This question could be split into two types of terms: new expressions & old expressions.

For new expressions one could open Google &/or Baidu go to "News" (资讯) and then "Order By Date" (按时间排序).

Other than this I'm not sure if there are any better options.

As for old expressions: there was an answer on here before that mentioned using 漢籍全文資料庫 to find the earliest usage in historical documents.

Again, I don't know if this is the optimal way of doing this.


  • I generally use humanum.arts.cuhk.edu.hk/Lexis/lexi-mf for oracle bone/bronze inscriptions, 王力古漢語字典 for Classical Chinese, and 漢語大詞典 for literary Chinese to near-modern terms. These may not give the earliest usage but will give a very good survey.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Dec 29, 2019 at 5:47

2 Answers 2


This question could be split into two types of terms: new expressions & old expressions.

I would rather split it into the following:

  • Textual usage in the classics & history, and later
  • Pre-Qin paleographic occurrences

While resources for the former are abundant (resources like 漢語大詞典 and later will give a good survey, even if not the earliest usage), resources for the latter are specialised and scarce. This is because literature of the former category are basically canonicalised, while texts in the latter category are still a fresh, hot area of research.

For a searchable database of the latter category,

  • For words, see 先秦甲骨金文簡牘詞彙庫.
  • For single characters,
    • The average user should look at 漢語多功能字庫 - this gives detailed paleographic explanations for each entry

    • If you have a working knowledge of Pre-Qin script shapes, you can use 小學堂. Note that each entry in 小學堂字形演變 also links to a 漢語多功能字庫 entry if it exists.

      enter image description here

      小學堂字形演變 does not aim to give accurate glyph origin explanations. The character explanations given directly underneath the table are mainly from well-known or canonicalised books for reference purposes, and may or may not be the modern professional consensus.

      The aim of 小學堂字形演變 entries is to provide a professional consensus on the historical forms of a character and related characters, presented in a table. For the actual explanations behind a character, please see the 相關索引 section underneath each entry for the references.

Worked example for words on 先秦甲骨金文簡牘詞彙庫: Earliest occurrence of the term 中國

  1. Go to 先秦甲骨金文簡牘詞彙庫

  2. Click on 詞彙檢索資料庫

  3. Type 中國 in the box labelled 詞彙. Optional filters include (Leave blank to not apply any filter restrictions):

    • Part of speech (詞類)
    • Resource type:
      • Oracle bone script (甲骨文) and associated literature
      • Bronze inscriptions (金文) and associated literature
      • Bamboo and wooden slips (簡牘)
  4. Click 查詢

  5. Only one result comes up:

    The citation (書籍 & 編號) is 殷周金文集成 6014.

    • 嚴式 & 寬式 refer to strict and loose spelling: Since 國 did not exist originally, the word representing 中國 was originally written as 中或. Thus, 中或 is the strict spelling of the word as it appears in the inscription.
  6. 殷周金文集成 is hosted on 國學大師, and you can search record #6014 there:

  7. Have fun deciphering! E.g. analysis of a short fragment:

    enter image description here

    隹(唯)珷(武)王旣𡱀(克)大邑商𠟭(則)【⿺𠃊⿹人彡】(筳)𠰛(告)【⿰于弓】(于)天曰余𠀠(其)宅𢆶(兹)𠁩(中)或(國・域) 自𡳿(之)【[⿰𠂤]】(乂)【⿸目十】(民)

    For (唯) King Wǔ (武王) had already (旣) defeated (克) the Great (大) State (邑) of Shāng (商). He thus (則) conducted ritual divination (筳 > 筳篿) and prayed (告) to (于) Heaven (天), saying (曰):

    I (余) shall (其) settle (宅) in these (兹) central (中) regions (或 > 國・域), and govern (乂) the people (民) from (自) here (之).

  • 1
    omg 🙀 when do one can search the oracle bone script? l must be old lah 😹 thanks for the sharing, my salute 👍 Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 13:25
  • @水巷孑蠻 oh, you should have asked earlier. 國學大師 has allowed you to search it for years. But this is highly dependent on how much 甲骨文合集 and related literature has been digitised, a lot of records haven't been.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 13:30
  • i rememberd once i read a table of 30 干支, instead of 60 ( guoxuedashi.com/jgwhj/?bhfl=1&bh=37986&jgwfl= ), do you have any idea of this oracle bone script? Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 13:34
  • @水巷孑蠻 sorry no idea. Maybe 合集18946? How complete was it? Was it 殘辭?
    – dROOOze
    Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 13:39
  • i just remember that it’s proposed as the preceding of 六十干支, that 三十干支 is an older form of recording day. anyway, it several decades ago, maybe i’m wrong. Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 13:43

To me, https://www.zdic.net/ is fine for the usage of common words or ancient words. Unlike other methods, this linked dictionary directly tell you some of the earliest usages of the word and the etymology/evolution of the single character. For examples: Early usage of a word

Early usage of a character

Etymology. You could click on those characters for how were those character found

On zdic you could click on those bronze characters and oracle characters at the end of the page; detailed references will be given.

Note that zdic does not update frequently so the link given in the comment gives some newest updates on etymology: http://humanum.arts.cuhk.edu.hk/Lexis/lexi-mf/search.php?word=%E6%95%B4. By using this link you have to manually search for the full text containing that specific character and then get the usage information. Still, knowing some early usages are easy but interpretating the earliest usage is hard, if the earliest appearance of the character is in oracle.

As most ancient Chinese words are of single character, the etymology and evolution information of the character seems enough to me.

Another free source is http://www.dacihai.com.cn/ but it usually give less information than zdic.

If you want an official source of the words' origin for professional or academic purposes, you have to go for a paid service or get the following dictionary: http://ciyuan.cp.com.cn/. From my experience most Chinese teachers use this one as the official source.

For new expressions, google/baidu is good enough, I suppose. For modern expressions, you could also search google scholar for relevant articles.

  • How can you find earliest usage on zdic?
    – Mou某
    Commented Aug 9, 2020 at 12:46
  • @Mo. Details added. Actually zdic does not claim to give the earliest usage of a word
    – High GPA
    Commented Aug 9, 2020 at 13:03
  • @dROOOzed Well if you click on those bronze characters at the end of the page, more details will be given. Still, you are right, their bronze character pool is not updated frequently and other sources are better updated in many cases.
    – High GPA
    Commented Aug 9, 2020 at 13:26

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