Learning Tools Part II – Dictionaries

Continuing with the expose of our blog’s learning tools, I move on to Part II: Dictionaries.

I’ll admit, albeit a bit embarrassedly, that I love dictionaries. Although I am not one to sit down and read one cover-to-cover, I do enjoy a well put-together dictionary. In order to learn Chinese, it never hurts to thumb through a physical dictionary and reinforce stroke-orders, pinyin, and radicals, but in this day and age, digital dictionaries are king. Here are a few of our favorites, and feel free to get back to me on yours.


Physical dictionaries are my favorite, but digital are much easier to use.


Dictionaries are key for continued study of a language. Beyond print copies, there are many electronic options, both online and in the mobile space. An iPod Touch, iPhone, Android, Windows Phone, or Palm all serve as ideal platforms for mobile dictionaries. Here are some of the favorites of the Lotus staff.

Despite being self described as a “cool word space always ahead of the competition,” nciku (pronounced n-cíkù) is a great place for both beginner and advanced learners of Chinese. The site’s video notes section provides video explanations for Chinese words with similar meanings. Dictionary notes provides a way for the community to give explanations about tricky subjects and give back to the project.


Pleco, the best option for a digital dictionary

PlecoDict: Arguably the best mobile dictionary available. With apps for iPhone, Windows Mobile, and Palm, it is very usable and comes with a free set of basic dictionaries. It is further expandable with paid dictionaries for advanced users.

A Chinese based dictionary with extensive English to Chinese capabilities. Also has many community tools, but mainly in Chinese.

The dictionary and tools are powerful, but also primarily in Chinese.

Wenlin is a desktop dictionary for advanced users, available for PC and Mac. Although somewhat dated, Wenlin provides extensive background for individual characters, including their origins and seal script forms.

Learning Tools Part I – Learning Communities

In order to release the language tools from its upper left hand corner purgatory, I am going to do a three part release of its content.

There are many online and computer resources for learning Chinese and discussing Chinese culture, and you found your first one! The Lotus Educational Foundation has been teaching foreign students Chinese language and culture since 2003. This site expands upon our student and alumni community and opens it to new students interested in the language. Welcome! Join the conversation in our comments sections.

Confucius in Tiananmen Square

Confucius just recently made a home in Tiananmen Square after a long banishment from official discourse. Source: uslesstree.typepad.com

For learning about traditional Chinese culture in modern China, the blog site Useless Tree is unparalleled. The blog centers on the confluence of modern and traditional China in today’s Beijing. I highly recommend taking a peek.

Here are some other resources that you mind find useful in your quest towards learning Chinese and obtaining the unobtainable: fluency in a foreign language. The Chinese forums website, although very ugly, has a lively community of students and professional Chinese teachers sharing their understanding of the language. The community is very active, and your question no matter how simple or complex will get an answer.

The ChinesePod Community Site piggy-backs off of the commercial offering of ChinesePod, but also has a lot of free content, and anyone is allowed to join the forum in order to post questions.

China’s competitor to Google, Baidu, has many resources the are useful for advanced students of Chinese. The website is under Chinese law concerning political material (so don’t expect to get in depth analysis of sensitive topics), but Baidu Baike provides a very good outline for any topic concerning China. Consider it like the Wikipedia of China. Often if a Wikipedia article fails you in China, Baike can pick up the slack. It is all in Chinese. Also Top Baidu gives the top searches in China with definitions and background. It is a good resource if you run across a word or phrase in a news article and have no idea what it means.

That is it for learning communities. Let me know of your favorite hangouts in the comments. More learning tools will follow this week.

From Afar: What does it mean?

Any student studying Chinese should have a basic understanding of the continuing development of Confucianism, especially within the past thirty years. The title of our blog, “From Afar” comes from the opening lines of The Analects of Confucius, “to have friends come from afar, is this not happiness?” Confucianism has meant different things since the man, Kongzi (孔子) was alive in the fifth century BCE.

Emperor Wu of Han, the first ruler to officially sponsor Confucianism.

Emperor Wu of Han, the first ruler to officially sponsor Confucianism. source:wikimedia.org

Confucianism, The Idea

Confucian philosophy, thought, and religion is recovering in China after a long period of decline. The idea and name of Confucius has come to mean traditional Chinese culture. Today, the international nonprofit Confucian Institute works to educate the international community in traditional Chinese culture and Mandarin language under the control of the Office of Chinese Language Council International within the Government of the People’s Republic of China. The Confucian Institute takes the name of the sage and represents the importance of education in traditional Chinese culture, but beyond these aspects, much of conservative Confucian thought has been left behind.

During the Cultural Revolution, Confucianism was denounced as an evil tradition. Students were encouraged not only criticize but to punish teachers and parents. This directly goes against the Confucian tradition of respect for elders and education. Confucianism had been the state religion for millennia, and revolutionary movements from the Taiping Rebellion to the May 4th Movement sought to destroy China’s dependence upon Confucian thought.

Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (156-87BCE) was the first ruler to set up a Confucian government, but political institutions based upon Confucian thought persisted until the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 AD. Ideas such as “be harmonious without necessarily agreeing” (和而不同) and “governing with virtue can be compared to being the North Star: the North Star remains stationary while the multitude of stars pay tribute” (为政以德,譬如北辰,居其所而众星共之) worked as the foundation for the unification and creation of the Empire of China. Historically, China has been fragmented upon cultural lines that can be traced back to ancient kingdoms, but Confucian thought was able to bring together diverse groups within one national body.

Kong Qiu,

source: wikimedia.org

Kong Qiu, The Man

Kong Qiu (孔丘) was the common name of Confucius. He was born in the Spring and Autumn Period in the town of Qufu in the State of Lu, which is now part of modern Shandong Province. The Spring and Autumn Period arose out of the decline of the Zhou Dynasty, when many kingdoms vied for control within the turbulent politics of the time. Kong Qiu worked as a teacher and philosopher, traveling from kingdom to kingdom to spread his teachings and continue to learn from the leaders of the time.

Although Kong Qiu never found great acceptance in his time, his followers recorded his teachings which became important during the Han Dynasty, nearly three hundred years later. Although he never gained acceptance in life, in death, Confucius has been recognized as the founder of a world religion. Even today, the residents of Qufu protect the town as a holy site, not just the birthplace of a great teacher.

From Afar

Confucius not only had great experience in politics but in philosophy and personal relationships as well. The origin of our title comes from the very beginning of his Analects:

“The Master said: ‘Having studied, to then repeatedly apply what you have learned, is this not a source of pleasure? To have friends come from distant quarters, is this not a source of enjoyment? To go unacknowledged by others without harboring frustration, is this not the mark of an exemplary person?”

(translation from Ames and Rosemont; 子曰:学而时习之,不亦说乎?有朋自远方来,不亦乐乎?人不知而不愠,不亦君子乎?)

The idea of “exemplary person” or Junzi (君子) is a complex one, sometimes translated as “gentle” or “noble person”. It has come to signify an individual dedicated to the teachings of Confucius. Although the teachings are a creation of their time and place, they remain valuable to any student studying abroad in China. We at Lotus hope that anyone who chooses to study abroad, not only in China, can appreciate the friends they meet along the way, and find them as not only friends but teachers.


The Analects of Confucius. translated by Roger T. Ames and Henry Romsemont, Jr. New York: Random House Publishing, 1998.

Giving in the Middle Kingdom

China has a long tradition of charity and philanthropy. Although many of the tenants of giving in China arose from Buddhist and Confucian tradition, like many of the cultural practices of Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, these tenants have become integral threads in the tapestry of Chinese culture. In order to learn Chinese and study the local language and culture, it is important to understand these concepts as well as their effects in modern life. Today, charity in China has benefitted from “star power”, and many Western celebrities like Kobe Bryant, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett are working to establish modern charities in China, but there are many local traditions that support this system as well.

Charity in China

Charity in China continues to develop, but what about the movement's history?


As students join a homestay and begin to learn in China, it is important to remember that even though they come from far away, students quickly become a small part of Chinese society and a representative of their home culture. Here are a few well known terms in Chinese that center around  giving back to your community as you study in China.

Charity in Chinese is “慈善” (císhàn). The two characters literrally mean “compassionate” (慈) and “good” (善). According to Baidu, císhàn was first used in the “Book of Wei”, where it refers to the “benevolence of the sun“. This sort of hierarchy (the sun is dominant and we receive its blessing), is a large part of Confucian practice. Confucian tradition made sense of the world by taking some natural structures as models for the nation and the family: just as the sun and heavens provide for the earth, so does the emperor for his subjects, and a father for his family.

From this, we can see the origins of filial piety. “孝道” (xiàodào, filial piety), to be dutiful to one’s parents and treat the elderly with respect as if they were one’s own parents was vital to traditional society. Before, if someone came under hard times, they often had a network of family to rely upon. This practice was especially strong in southern China, where “family clans” supported up to fifty people. For more on traditional clans see the Wikipedia article (English) or Baidu Baike(Chinese).

Filial piety is one of the most important concepts in Chinese culture, but a traditional practice that continues to undergo drastic changes in modern China. Lotus organizes regular trips to senior care centers (敬老院, jìnglǎoyuàn). Here students studying Chinese often come and experience first hand the importance of providing for our elder generations. As result of the one-child policy, China’s population is rapidly aging, and one grandchild can sometimes come to support two parents and four grandparents. Sadly, this pressure is often too much, and many of China’s elderly are uncared for. Even though these elder’s are not family, students and volunteers often care for them as if they were.

Will charity in China continue to develop?

Will charity in China continue to develop? Image source: chinageeks.org

Giving Today

Charity in China is slowly moving away from the traditional family-based support system.  Today, families are much smaller and many are fragmented with elders living in villages and many of the young and middle aged flocking to cities to look for work. In today’s world of development and progress when individuals are in trouble they sometimes slip through the cracks.

There are three terms that describe this form of charitable support beyond the family: “舍得” (shěde), we get after giving; “知足常乐” (zhīzúchánglè), to know contentment is to be happy; and “助人为乐” (zhùrénwéilè), helping people is happiness. These terms define the cultural understanding of charitable giving and support. Sadly, many of these traditional terms have been forgotten in modern China, and only recently have individuals and institutions been attempting to revive the Chinese tradition of giving, as Pierre Fuller writes in an Op-Ed in the New York Times.

It is to this understanding that many domestic stars and foreigners have been trying to apply their own efforts towards a stronger system of public charity in China. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett recently held an historic conference in China, inviting the richest individuals in the country to come together and agree to give their massive amounts of wealth to public charities. Other instituions and NGOs are also working with volunteers and donations to pursue a number of different social initiatives. If you are in China studying Chinese, do not hesitate to donate time or money towards the growing movement of charity in China through volunteering or internships.


Welcome to From Afar!
Lotus Educational Foundation

From Afar is Lotus Education’s new blog. We hope it will provide a space for our community to come together to discuss and learn about China’s distinct language and traditional culture, as well as share stories, questions, and experiences about living in China.

As the community continues to grow, please be sure to come back regularly for information about our current homestay, high school, and college programs. We also encourage alumni to participate in conversations and share some of the valuable lessons they learned while abroad. Be sure to register for more involvement and to receive updates about comments and articles.

Thank you for supporting our community, and hopefully we will see you around the site!

Very Truly Yours,

Lisa Sheng
Program Director
Lotus Educational Foundation
Beijing, China