The American sinologist George A. Kennedy, who wrote a student's guide to using the Cihai as the basis for sinological studies, said the dictionary's principal values are its (1953:85) "explanations for phrases and compound expressions" and (1953:131) "citations illustrating the use of words and expressions."
1937 first edition Cihai
The Cihai originated when Lufei Kui, founder of the Zhonghua Book Company, decided to publish a comprehensive Chinese dictionary to compete with rival Commercial Press's 1915 Ciyuan (辭源 "source of words") (Wilkinson 2000:89). Under the editorship of Shu Xincheng (舒新城, 1893-1960), Shen Yi (沈颐）and others, over 100 lexicographers worked for two decades to compile the Cihai, which was published in 1936. This 2-volume first edition has over 80,000 entries arranged under single characters in radical-stroke order, with the words and compounds under each character listed by the number of characters and strokes. The definitions are written in wenyan "literary Chinese" (Hartmann 2003:166). The Taiwan branch of Zhonghua published a Cihai reprint in 1956 with minor revisions additions and corrections (Yang 1985:279).
Plans for a second edition began after a 1958 conference about revising the Cihai and Ciyuan. The Cihai Editorial Committee organized over 5000 scholars and specialists to undertake the new compilation, concentrating on revising the first edition entries and adding modern terminology, especially scientific and technical terminology. Reinhard Hartmann (2003:166) describes the editorial work of revising Cihai as taking "a tortuous course, 22 years from start to finish". After the original editor-in-chief Shu Xincheng died in 1960, he was succeeded by Chen Wangdao, who died in 1977, and was succeeded by Xia Zhengnong (夏征农, 1904-2008). From 1961 to 1962, sixteen shiyong (試用 "trial") individual subject-matter fascicles were distributed for comments by specialists, and in 1965 a weidinggao (未定稿 "draft manuscript") Cihai was completed, but the anti-intellectualism of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) halted editorial work (Huang et al. 1993:220). Shanghai Dictionary Publishing House (上海辭書出版社) published the three-volume revised edition Cihai in 1979 and a condensed single-volume version in 1980.
The revised 1979 edition has the same title and layout as the original 1936 edition, but serves a much different purpose (Wilkinson 2000:89). The first edition covers China's past and uses literary Chinese for definitions, while the second edition also covers modern China and international matters and uses baihua "colloquial speech". It contains 106,578 entries, totaling more than 13.4 million characters. The single character headwords are arranged under 250 radicals, with subsequent words listed according to stroke numbers. The third volume appends useful charts (e.g., a chronology of Chinese history), tables (weights and measures), lists (Ethnic minorities in China), and a pinyin index to single characters.
The 1989 three-volume edition Cihai was also compiled with Xia Zhengnong as editor-in-chief. It focused upon the addition of 20th-century terms, more proper names, and technical vocabulary. This third edition Cihai contains 16,534 head characters, with more than 120,000 entries, totaling over 15.8 million characters. (Huang et al. 1993:223-224)
1999 compact fourth edition Cihai
The 1999 Cihai contains 17,674 head characters, 122,835 entries, totaling more than 19.8 million characters. This fourth edition dictionary added many color tables and illustrations. Arrangement is by radicals and there are stroke-count, four-corner, pinyin, and foreign-language indexes (Wilkinson 2000:89). It was also published in a compact version.
The 2009 fifth edition Cihai contains more than 127,200 entries, arranged by pinyin, with over 22 million characters total. Chen Zhili replaced Xia Zhengnong as chief editor, and lexicographers deleted about 7,000 entries for outdated terms and added almost 10,000 for neologisms. Volumes 1-4 contain text, with many color illustrations, and Volume 5 contains indexes.
The Dacihai (大辞海 "Great sea of words") is a 38-volume encyclopedia project that began in 2004, and published the first volumes in 2008.
Cihai 1965 new edition (辭海一九六五年新編本) (1979-02): Based on the 1965 draft. It is also printed in simplified Chinese as the 1965 draft. 2 volumes.
4th edition (1989)
Simplified Chinese 3-volume edition (1989-09): Based on the 4th edition from Shanghai Lexicographical Publishing House, for Hong Kong market.
Simplified Chinese condensed edition (1989-09): Based on the 4th edition from Shanghai Lexicographical Publishing House, for Hong Kong market.
Cihai 1989 condensed edition (辭海1989年縮印本) (ISBN962-231-017-6/ISBN978-962-231-017-9) (1990-12): Based on the 3rd edition by Shanghai Lexicographical Publishing House. It is also printed in simplified Chinese as the original. 1 volume.
Collectors' edition (辞海 第六版 典藏本) (ISBN978-7-5326-3353-1/N.68): The last print edition of Cihai from the publisher. Sorted by Chinese phonetics, followed by Arabic numbers and foreign alphabets. 9 volumes (8+1 index).
After Tung Hua Book Co., Ltd. had published Cihai from Shanghai Lexicographical Publishing House, Chung Hwa Book Company, Limited requested Tung Hua Book not to use 'Cihai' as book title to avoid trademark violation. The Taiwan-based Chung Hwa Book Company, Limited already registered 'Cihai' as trademark for printed material in 1985 prior to THB's publication, but the book's content was licensed from Shanghai Lexicographical Publishing House, whom had authorized the use of contents to THB.