SOUTH KOREA: After 30 years: world’s largest Chinese dictionary

Dankook University in South Korea has announced the imminent completion of a project huge in scale and decades in the making: the world’s largest and most comprehensive Chinese dictionary. Dankook’s Institute of Oriental Studies initiated research on the dictionary in 1977, partially motivated by a desire to have a Korean work to rival the Chinese-character dictionaries produced by neighbouring countries.

The university says the dictionary will be completed in April and the full 15-volume set published in May. The Dictionary of Chinese Characters in Korean Usage looks set to outstrip its regional rivals.

At 60,000 characters and some 500,000 words, in terms of volume the Korean tome clearly outdoes such established references as Japan’s Dai Kan-wa Jiten (50,000 characters and 530,000 words), Taiwan’s Zhongwen Da Cidian (50,000 characters and 400,000 words) and China’s Hanyu Da Cidian (23,000 characters and 370,000 words).

Compiling a dictionary in any language is a Herculean task but Dankook’s project is more ambitious than most. Lacking an alphabetical order, the organisation of a Chinese dictionary is the first stumbling block.

In general, modern Chinese dictionaries adopt a system where characters are ordered based on the number of pen-strokes it takes to write them, breaking characters down first by their ‘radicals’ – the semantic component – and then by their remaining strokes. Precisely which order characters with the same radicals and number of strokes will appear in, and in some cases which component will be considered the radical, is up to the compiler.

Not content with merely producing a gigantic dictionary, however, the Dankook team chose to cast a much wider net than might be expected, ranging from classical to modern Chinese usage, all the way to non-Chinese languages.

Despite the title, the Dictionary of Chinese Characters in Korean Usage covers the entirety of the Chinese character-using sphere, including the various Chinese languages spoken in China and Taiwan, as well as the Chinese characters used in Japanese and Korean, where they are known as kanji and hanja respectively, and those found in pre-1950s Vietnamese texts.

Although Chinese character usage has declined somewhat in the modern Korean language, hanja literacy is widely thought of as key to Korean literacy, while kanji remain a vital component of the Japanese multiple-script writing system.

Interviewed in Seoul’s Chosun Ilbo daily, Yoon Nae-hyun, director of Dankook’s Institute of Oriental Studies, said: “A complete Chinese character dictionary is the key to efforts to decipher our own classics and understanding traditional culture. So the compilation and publication of such a dictionary is a stepping stone for the advance of the humanities.”

The Commercial Press, the biggest dictionary publisher in China which produces the Hanyu Da Cidian, declined to comment.