I always wondered whether Chinese people had dictionaries. I mean seriously, how do you look up a picture? I can imagine how you might have English-Chinese language dictionaries using pinyin (a romanization of Chinese characters), but beyond that it gets more complicated. So, since I am in China, I set out to find a dictionary. Shortly after starting my quest, I found in the basement of a Wumei (naturally, a Walmart competitor).
The way a Chinese dictionary works is that it catalogues the manner in which the characters are drawn. In other words, they are organized by how many strokes it takes to draw a given character. And then for a given stroke number (say 11), the characters are ranked by the order in which the characters are composed. So using a Chinese dictionary requires you to not only know how many strokes it takes to construct a given character, but it also means you have to be familiar with the rules that govern how each character is constructed. It is as complicated as it sounds.
The reason behind my quest for a Chinese dictionary is that the phone I bought is stuck on a setting where I can only text in characters and most of my friends text me in characters. While I am truly awed that humanity can figure out how to make tens of thousands of hieroglyphs available through an alphanumeric keypad, it has gotten a bit frustrating. Tapping out – “I’ll be there in a few” takes the hapless foreigner about 20 minutes of skimming through a dictionary.