What dictionaries (online, software-based or in paper form) explain the origins of a word and its evolution over time? E.g. how the character was once written, how the usage – and the meaning – changed over time.

11 Answers 11


Wen Lin is an amazing piece of software that has all of the etymological features you are looking for. The central downside is that it is a bit pricey. Most universities have a copy, though, and there may be the opportunity to get some kind of student pricing discount. (Not sure if that applies to your case.)

  • +1, Wenlin is the ultimate dictionary/reference for those who can afford it. Unfortunately, many of us cannot... :( Commented Dec 24, 2011 at 18:05
  • They have recently cut their prices in half so it now costs $99 to download. I use it every single day, so $99 is really worth it for the value it adds to my Chinese studies.
    – rramphal
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 16:47

I found the ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese to be a great source if you're interested in the evolution of the prounciation and meaning of Chinese words. It avoids etymology of character structure though; for that, I would suggest chineseetymology.org.

  • +1 for resources on actual etymology, instead of only character "etymology". Commented Jan 21, 2013 at 23:41
  • in its own right, character etymology is a worthy endeavor to discover how characters came about. a very good example is 東 and 西 and how they are used to write 東西. many people believe that 東 is the sun setting behind a tree, and 西 a bird in its nest. however, as R. Sears has pointed out, 東 and 西 are better explained as 'bag' and 'basket'—and 東西 as 'what you put into bags and baskets—things, stuff' (cf. German "Sack und Pack", i.e. 'all your stuff').
    – flow
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 17:02

zhongwen.com has a very limited amount of information on each character's origin.


This is an excellent one (and it's free too ;) )

Yellow Bridge


In terms of the individual 漢字 (characters), there's the classic 說文解字 (Shuowen Jiezi) written in the 1st to 2nd century AD, which is the first and the most authoritative Chinese dictionary to attempt to trace the origin and evolution of each character. An online version is available here, or ZDict as mentioned above also contains the Shuowen entry.

The obvious drawback is that you need to know how to read 文言文 (classical Chinese). Be aware also that, although traditionally considered the gold standard for Chinese etymology, recent archaeological findings have necessitated new derivations for some characters; the Wikipedia page has a general explanation on this.

  • Many explanations in Shuowen are incorrect, so it shouldn't be the "gold standard". But still, it is a good start to learn etymology by Shuowen. I recommend the book 說文解字考正 by 董蓮池, which includes recent archaeological findings besides the original text of Shuowen (printed in the traditional typeface, and the seal script for each entry is kept).
    – Stan
    Commented Oct 4, 2014 at 6:05

In this post I gave an overview of online resources:

On http://ctext.org/dictionary.pl?if=en you can see how a character evolved, the simplified and traditional characters.

Another similar website is http://www.chineseetymology.org/CharacterEtymology.aspx .

Zdict is completely in Chinese: http://www.zdic.net/zd/zi/ZdicE7Zdic9BZdicAE.htm

Here is another website in Chinese (that only supports transitional characters): http://alphads10-2.hkbu.edu.hk/~lcprichi/

As Aristide mentioned http://www.yellowbridge.com has similar functionality.

Although it doesn't show how the characters evolved, I also like http://zhongwen.com It explains how characters are composed out of other characters.


There's a list of etymology resources (including a couple already mentioned) on this page: http://mandarinportal.com/etymology.php


I like http://chinese-characters.org It's simple and clear.


https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/johnrenfroe/outlier-dictionary-of-chinese-characters this project on Kickstartes sound interesting.


Here's some sites I've looked up for you. Sorry if these are not what you are looking for.

http://www.zhongwen.com/ http://portal.mandarinportal.com/etymology.php



This is the exact book you should refer.

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