Using a Chinese dictionary to find specific characters you are interested in may appear to be like an exercise in quantum physics but it is really a fairly straightforward process, and actually kind of fun (a bit like solving a puzzle). Its a bit of steep learning curve but in the long run it really helps with the ability to recognize the characters. As a rank beginner, I use a Chinese/English dictionary which means that I still rely on pin-yinto locate the characters. If my ability to read Chinese improves, I will move to using a Chinese only dictionary to look up characters (that is a long way out into the future right now!)
The Chinese/English dictionary is organized according to "radicals". Every Chinese character has a "radical". The radical is the most fundamental part of the character and can provide a clue to the meaning and the historical derivation of the character.
When using the Chinese dictionary the first step is to identify the radical. This is the most difficult step in my view and I usually ended up just guessing most of the time. Eventually, I was was able to identify the more common (and obvious) radicals fairly quickly but I could easily spend half a day or more trying to identify a less common radical or one associated in a complex character.
All of the radicals (108 according to my dictionary) are listed by number in the "radical index". The index also lists all (or at least most of the more common) of the characters associated with a given radical. The characters are listed below their radical according to the number of strokes they contain.the radical (this is the other critical learning aspect of using the Chinese dictionary...knowing the stroke number is a critical first step)
Tip of the Day 1: Know the stroke order. Absolutely critical if you plan to write Chinese properly.
- Identify the radical.
- Find the radical in the index and make note of the number.
- Use the number to look up the radical and list of derivative characters.
- Locate the character by searching the list using number of strokes as a guide.
You will notice that the dictionary will provide various definitions for the character in question similar to the structure of a Western dictionary. It will also provide a list of character combinations that include the character in question as the lead character. The character combinations are what you really need to pay attention to.
Tip of the Day 2: All single characters have a meaning, but "words" as used in written and spoken Chinese often consist of two characters used in combination with each other. When I first started trying to learn Chinese I would often spend several hours translating a newspaper article character by character attempting to decifer the meaning. The result was usually nonsense. I was then told to focus on the character combinations. Find the lead character as described above and then look at/for the combinations. This is where the nuance of the language comes out since the precise meaning of a character dependent upon how it is used in combination with other characters.