How do you sort Chinese words since they are not alphabetical? What sorts of sorting systems exist, and what is typical in dictionaries for example?

I am thinking how to do some programming stuff where I sort the words, but I am not sure how it typically works in detail.

  • I note that if we take e.g. a plain text file and "sort" it, the order will be according to its encoding, e.g. Unicode, and not related to the order found in dictionaries.
    – Becky 李蓓
    Commented Jan 2, 2021 at 12:23

4 Answers 4


Chinese dictionaries index the entries by Radical (部首) and Strokes (筆劃)

The character 人 is also it's radical. It is listed first in the 亻radical section

Radical: 亻 (#9)

Stroke count: 2

The radical of the character 仁 is 亻 and it has four strokes, therefore, it is listed after 人 in the 亻 radical section because 仁 has two strokes more than 人

Radical: 亻 (#9)

Stroke count: 4

The radical of 靈 is 雨 which has a stroke count of 8, therefore, it is listed far down after 亻 on the radical list

The character 靈 itself has 24 strokes and would be listed far down in the 雨 radical section

Radical: 雨 (#173)

Stroke count: 24

It is not as efficient as The Alphabetical indexing system but it is what we have. The major problem of the radical-stroke count system is the users need to know the radical of the character he is looking for. If you don't know it, you can't even start to search.

Even when you knew the radical and started your search in the correct section, you still need to spend some time looking up the character from a long list of characters that are arranged by ascending stroke counts order

If you can memorize all the radical numbers e.g. 亻(#9); 雨 (#173). You can find a character as quickly as using an English dictionary to search for an English word

  • Nice! Is there a free database/spreadsheet of Chinese characters that lists the radical and stroke count for each? HanziDB seems close, but I'm not sure this is all characters, and I don't know what the decimal number means next to each radical. Also, what if two characters have the same radical and same stroke count?
    – Lance
    Commented Jan 1, 2021 at 4:06
  • 1
    If two characters have the same radical and same stroke count, stroke type will be the tie-breaker. They will be listed close to each other and the list would be very short anyway
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Jan 1, 2021 at 4:10
  • decimal number? you mean 亻 (#9). ; 冫 (#15). It is their assigned code. Both 亻 and 冫 has two strokes, but 亻 is listed higher than 冫 in the database
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Jan 1, 2021 at 4:16
  • @Lane <chinese.stackexchange.com/questions/42388/…>
    – joehua
    Commented Jan 1, 2021 at 13:41

In most dictionaries I know of, characters are sorted by their Pinyin (拼音). Under that, there's the four tones. After the tones sorting level, it may vary from dictionary to dictionary, but sometimes it's frequency, other times it's something else.

  • What is that "something else", please be specific :)
    – Lance
    Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 19:53

i am also working on Chinese language. For this i am helped by a software which is called Wenlin.
First, something must be clarified : nowadays a lot of Chinese words are built with two or more characters, and a few characters ar not used alone as words.
So i think the sort made by radical character in Chinese dictionaries is working fine, since you can find, in any character of the word you are interested in, the radical of that character, and you will find, in the Chinese dictionary in the pages dedicated to that radical (214 but a few are not very often used), the word you are looking for.
In the Wenlin software you can find all the words which are beginning, or ending, by a character.
I am not sure it would be more easy to find the word (of more than one character) in a pinyin method sorted dictionary.
A link for an overview of the software : The Wenlin Computerized Chinese - English Dictionary

I am myself making a lexicon which will help Chinese learner to get an overview :-)


In our education, chinese charactors are sorted by 3 methods:

  1. 拼音 (pin yin) - morden method
  2. 偏旁部首 - 50 years ago.
  3. 笔划 - 50 years ago.

method 1 are very comman and much easier to use.


  • a - 阿 (a), 安(an), 昂(ang), 袄(ao)
  • b - 爸 (ba), 半(ban), 帮(bang)
  • c - 擦 (ca), 餐(can), 仓(cang)

buy a dictionary of "新华字典", you can find it.

  • Can you list what these mean in English?
    – Lance
    Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 19:53
  • in your question, "what these mean", these means for what? "拼音", "偏旁部首", "笔划“? or "阿", "安", "爸", "擦" ?
    – Siwei
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 7:57
  • I think you can go to google translation website and find out the answer
    – Siwei
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 7:57

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