Learning how to write Chinese is not as easy as writing in English. Chinese characters are a combination of strokes that require memorization to learn, unlike English where you can attempt to spell it out with alphabets and it’s still possible to get it right. In computers, typing Chinese characters can be done with an English keyboard through the Pinyin system which is using roman alphabets to represent the Chinese sounds. The pinyin system is useful to translate alphabets to Chinese characters but not the other way round.
Let’s say you saw a Chinese character somewhere and would like to know what it means. You can try writing it down on a piece of paper or snapping it using your smartphone, then draw it using Windows Paint from your computer when you get home, save it to an image format and upload it to some Chinese forum to request for someone to translate it. Or perhaps you are faced with a challenge to fill up a form that contains a CAPTCHA in Chinese where you are required to input the Chinese character that you see but you have no idea what it means or how they sounded like. Pinyin is absolutely useless to you at that time.
Fortunately we have a list of websites that allows you to draw Chinese characters using your mouse.
nciku is advertised as an online English to Chinese dictionary but they are more than that. You will find two boxes at the top right where the left one is used to draw a Chinese character using your mouse, and the box next to it will display any matching Chinese characters according to the one that is drawn at the left box. Clicking on the Chinese character from the result box will automatically insert the word into the search box where you can search for the meaning of the character or simply copy and paste it to another destination.
An advantage in using nciku is it can recognize the Chinese characters quite accurately even if you do not follow the stroke order.
MDBG is a popular website offering a free English to Chinese online dictionary used in many schools and universities around the world. Since MDBG already have an extensive database of English to Chinese in the dictionary, they’ve integrated a free Java applet called HanziLookup by Jordan Kiang into their website allowing visitors to look up Chinese characters using mouse input.
To enable the handwriting input in MDBG, click on the paintbrush icon beside the Go button and a vertical box will appear at the right hand side of the page requesting you to activate the Java Platform. After activating Java, you’ll need to allow the Java applet to run. You can now start drawing the Chinese character at the top box and a list of characters closest to what you’ve drawn will be displayed at the bottom. Selecting a character will instantly move it to the search box where you can look up the word or simply copy and paste.
Take note that the mouse written Chinese character recognition is based on stroke order. If you’re not familiar with Chinese character stroke order, always remember the general rule of writing from top to bottom and left to right.
YellowBridge has a handwriting recognizer which is quite similar to the one found in nciku, except it does not require Adobe Flash Player to load. Simply click on the paintbrush icon to load the extra dialog box where you can draw the Chinese character using the correct stroke order.
Please note that if you have an ad-blocker addon such as Adblock Plus installed on your web browser, YellowBridge is able to detect it and prevent you from using their free online services until you whitelist their website or become their paid subscriber. Another simple solution is to use another web browser that does not have an adblocker addon installed.
4. Handwritten Kanji Search
Although Kanji is a Japanese word, the word Kanji actually means Japanese writing system using Chinese characters. What we really liked about this handwriting kanji recognition program is the ability to enable or disable options such as looking ahead, showing stroke numbers, saving input and most importantly ignoring stroke order which is very useful for people who do not know how to write Chinese characters in the correct stroke order.
There is however a small challenge when trying to copy the recognized word matching your drawing. You will need to be very careful in highlighting the word without clicking on the hyperlink. We couldn’t draw when the webpage is loaded from Internet Explorer 11 but works fine in Firefox and Chrome.
5. Google Translate
It is not a surprise that Google Translate, a free online language translation service from the tech giant supports handwriting input. First select Chinese as the main language and an additional icon with a Chinese character will appear at the bottom left of the input box. Click on the arrow pointing downwards and select “Chinese (Simplified) – Handwrite“. A box will appear where you can use your mouse to draw the Chinese character.
Fortunately Google Translate handwriting input using the mouse doesn’t restrict you to stroke order. As long as the character is drawn to look like the real Chinese word, it can recognize without problems.