An Introduction to SmartHanzi and DDB Access

SmartHanzi and DDB Access are interesting apps from the same developer which I came across on Twitter a few years ago. They have remained staple apps on my phone ever since I downloaded them, and I have long intended to review them in the Digital Orientalist. As most readers will be aware I am a Japanolgist, historian, and sometimes theologian by trade, and although China and her history features extensively in my research as it does for many East Asian specialists it would be difficult to describe myself as a “true” Sinologist. This review and introduction, therefore, is not the review of a Sinologist, but the review of a person who engages on occasion with Chinese language sources and Chinese history. For a person such as this SmartHanzi and DDB Access are very useful applications. SmartHanzi is available on PC, Mac, Windows Tablets, iPhone, iPad, and Android (links to the various app stores are listed on SmartHanzi‘s homepage). There is also an extension called SmartHanzi Lite for use with Apple’s Safari Browser which allows users to search for the meanings of terms on webpages that they visit. DDB Access is available on PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, and Android. I have only used the iPhone versions of the apps so this review focuses on those iterations.


The home screen of the SmartHanzi App.

SmartHanzi is first and foremost a dictionary. It allows users to search CC-CEDICT. The dictionary feature which is accessed by the search function in the menu allows the user to search in English, traditional or simplified Chinese and provides results in traditional or simplified Chinese (depending on which option is toggled) alongside English meaning and pinyin. A highly useful feature is that the user can listen to the pronunciation of the words that they search for. When a word is selected one can view the individual characters with information such as meaning and radicals from Howell and Morimoto’s Etymological Dictionary of Han/Chinese Characters (EDHCC, also known as the KanjiNetwork project). One can also view a list of compound words or if one has searched for an individual character, words which contain that character. In the options section, one can change the dictionary to CFDict or HanDeDict meaning that French and German meanings can also be searched making this a multilingual tool.

Searching for a term in SmartHanzi.

Details about an individual word.

Nevertheless, SmartHanzi is not just a dictionary it also has text segmentation capabilities. Users can copy and paste passages into the text reader found on the app’s main page or via the reader function. The app displays the pasted text and allows users to listen to the text at different speeds, select individual words (showing how they are segmented) and view their meanings and pronunciation. Menus at the top of the results page allows one to view lists of all words, all characters or both all words and characters used in the pasted text. The words and/or characters are displayed alongside their meanings and pinyin pronunciations. When a word or character is selected the same features that can be accessed in the dictionary portion of the app (described above) become available. The app does not provide a complete translation of the passage that the user decides to input, which may disappoint some users. However, for those who have some knowledge of Chinese grammar, but lack a wide vocabulary it is a fairly easy process to piece together the meaning of a text pasted into the reader. For me, the app’s reader function is its most useful feature, since text segmentation can be highly important for transliterating Chinese terms and the names of publications.

Text pasted from Wikipedia into the app.

List of all words featured in the passage pasted into the app’s reader.

For those interested in learning Chinese, the app also has a flash card and test feature to practice for the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (E. Chinese Proficiency Test). I have not used this feature, but it’s existence makes this app a well rounded tool for language learners.

If I have any complaints about the app it is that the home screen is a bit old-fashioned, however, improvements have been made since I started using it and the app is regularly maintained and updated. The most recent update was made earlier this year.

DDB Access

DDB Access is similar to SmartHanzi, but offers access to a different selection of dictionaries, namely the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism (DDB) and the English Dictionary of Confucian, Daoist, and Intellectual Historical Terms (CJKV-E). As such, it is primarily geared towards Classical Chinese and historio-religious terminology and will be particularly useful to scholars of Chinese history and Buddhism.

DDB Access’s Home Screen.

DDB Access lacks a flash card and test component and does not provide information on characters from Howell and Morimoto’s Etymological Dictionary of Han/Chinese Characters or audio playback of terms and characters. Nevertheless, the app retains the same dictionary and reader functions as SmartHanzi and offers some additional functionality. Firstly, pronunciations and readings are offered not only in pinyin, but also in Wade-Giles, Hangeul, Revised Romanization, McCune–Reischauer, Katakana, Modified Hepburn, and Vietnamese. All of these can be viewed after searching for a term, but a principal form of pronunciation can also be chosen in the options menu. This is a highly useful feature for those who may need to transliterate terms into multiple forms or languages.

Term with different transliterated forms.

As with SmartHanzi, the English meaning, and the individual characters and terms which make up a word can be viewed. In addition to this one can view dictionary references for the terms. In my opinion, the most useful feature of the dictionary is the “senses” tab which offers additional meanings, notes on usage and contextual information including, on occasion, historical essays about a searched term. This is particular useful for historical research where the researcher may need to decipher the meaning of terms which are either obsure or which may have multiple senses. 

The “senses” section for the term, sānjiāo 三教.

There are some important things to note about the use of the dictionary/search function. Firstly, the user must choose between the dictionary that they want to use (either DDB or CJKV-E) in the options menu. Secondly, users must “log in” in order to use the dictionary/search function. The log in button is found on the top-right corner of the home screen. Whilst some users may have accounts with DDB/CJKV-E through their institutions, those who do not can use a guest account by typing “guest” when prompted for a username. Guest accounts are limited to 10 searches per 24-hour period.

DDB Access’s reader function works in the same way as the reader function on SmartHanzi. It uses DDB and CJKV-E to segment the text that the user inputs and is therefore best used with classical sources. I may be mistaken, but there does not appear to be a daily limit for using the reader function. The app offers some example texts taken from the Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (CBETA, Zhōnghuá diànzǐ fódiǎn xiéhuì 中華電子佛典協會) and the work of Mencius (C. Mèngzǐ 孟子) to try out the reader, and it appears to work fairly well.

Users of SmartHanzi will find DDB Access very easy to use since the interface is effectively identical. Like SmartHanzi the app is regularly updated.

Closing Thoughts

For anyone who needs a highly functional app which works great as a Chinese dictionary and for text segmentation, I can’t recommend SmartHanzi enough. For those engaged in historical research DDB Access provides an additional and highly useful dictionary and segmentation tool for classical and religious sources. Whether “true” Sinologists will agree with my assessment is another question, although I imagine that many might agree that SmartHanzi and DDB Access are highly useful digital tools. In SmartHanzi and DDB Access, the scholar whose work occasionally requires references to Chinese history and sources will find two functional apps that will likely become a staple part of their research arsenal. You can find additional information on the apps and download them on SmartHanzi’s website or on the app store of your chosen device.

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