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Part I:  An Introduction to Chinese Electronic Dictionaries and Criteria for their Evaluation

This article provides an overview of Chinese electronic dictionaries, followed by a detailed annotated list of the main digital lexica, resources and reference tools currently available. As usual, when dealing with digital resources, the examples discussed below will become outdated, perhaps even within the next few months.  We will therefore first provide a set of general guidelines on how to evaluate and compare electronic dictionaries and related reference tools before discussing the applications themselves.

In late 2012, Victor Mair gave a lecture entitled “Sinology Then and Now: Methods and Aims” at Peking University (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VkoPGEHaqPo ). Given the vast scope one would expect with a title like this, it is remarkable that he delineated the major periods in Sinology by the availability of new and groundbreaking lexicographic works.

Traditional lexicography and lexicology are time-honored disciplines, and the basic tenets which guide their creation have remained relatively stable in recent years. Recently, advances in digital technologies have led to new, although long anticipated, types of dictionaries (such as WordNet or the Oxford Collocations Dictionary) which are based on word frequency statistics, collocations, semantic relations and so on. This has led to a reevaluation of the organization of lexicon-entries and the structure of dictionaries, as well as placing a greater emphasis on understanding the roles dictionaries can play in assisting as well as examining the cognitive processes of vocabulary acquisition and language learning. While conventional alphabetic or radical-based organizations group lexemes that usually have no semantic relation, new clustering and syntagmatic approaches aim at presenting co-occurrences, just as a reader would find in the real world. Dictionaries that are based on real language observation can thus also become more descriptive and less normative, hopefully leading to developments in lexicographic theory. A practical example is the annotation of entries with difficulty- or domain-specific frequency levels (similar to HSK levels), thereby facilitating the acquisition of new vocabulary.

The earliest digital Chinese-English dictionary that was freely available and widely used was the CEDICT, initially released in 1997 and maintained by Paul Denisowski .  In 2007, it was renamed the CC-CEDICT, made publicly available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License, and has been adapted by a host of dictionary projects, some of which have already gone out of use while others have become among the most widely used Chinese lexical tools available today.

Therefore, as with other types of digital content, the internet has allowed for a shift of authorship from traditional professional organizations to amateurs and enthusiasts roughly at the same time a sea change in traditional publishing has occurred. Similarly, the potential to reach a wide audience of contemporary scholars has improved greatly with digitization. Thus, questions of reliability and quality must be considered, as well as familiar problems of discourse, authority, language policy, and censorship.