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How Many Chinese Characters Are There?

It’s tricky to give a definite number of all the Chinese characters in existence. For alphabetic languages, words are just combinations of letters that are only dozens in number. Those words obey a clear phonetic rule, making them easier to pronounce and memorize. Such is not the case with Chinese, a language with no alphabet at all and consisting of different character components, which can form thousands of characters and more Chinese word combinations.

How Many Words are in the Chinese Language?

With a history of over 5,000 years, the Chinese writing system has evolved and transformed multiple times, during which new variants and logograms came into being.

Two of the largest Chinese dictionaries in he modern times are The Great Compendium of Chinese Characters中华字海 (Zhōnghuà Zìhǎi) and The Dictionary of Chinese Variant Form異體字字典 (Yìtǐzì Zìdiǎn). The former lists 85,568 Chinese characters, and the latter indexes up to 106,230. Chinese words are made up of different character combinations. 

Although the largest recorded number of Chinese words in a Chinese dictionary amounts to a whopping 370,000 words, Chinese is likely to have over 500,000 words in its vocabulary. The intimidating number may act as a discouragement for someone who is on his way to learning Chinese. But here comes the good news: mastering approximately 5% of all the words is enough to become fluent in Chinese.

Chinese has No Alphabet Per Se but Characters Instead

Unlike in the English dictionaries in which words are listed in alphabetical order, Chinese characters are listed in the dictionaries by radicals (Bushou 部首). Each radical is used to create several characters representing its specific meaning. 

To help better understand what a radical is, you can consider the Chinese radicals as an alphabet, with which you can form a new word with meaning and remember its pronunciation. If you’re interested in whether Chinese has an alphabet or not, you can read more in this article. 

Chinese radicals are root characters indexing a specific semantic meaning. With radical, you can look up several words under the same radical and discover their semantic similarity. For example, the characters “媽” “姐” “妹” “奶” “姨” all share the same radical “女”, which means they are all related to female. 

Character

媽 (mā)

姐 (jiě)

妹 (mèi)

奶 (nǎi)

姨 (yí)

English

mother

elder sister

younger sister

grandma

aunt

Radical

女 (nǚ)

女 (nǚ)

女 (nǚ)

女 (nǚ)

女 (nǚ)

Phonetic component

馬 (mǎ)

且 (qiě)

未 (wèi)

乃 (nǎi)

夷 (yí)

The phonetic components are usually characters with meaning per se. Apart from being used to build another character, these sound components can also be used solely to form different Chinese words. For example, “馬” is the phonetic component of “媽”. If you replace the radical “女” with another radical “虫”, it becomes the character “螞”(), meaning the insect of ant. But if you use this phonetic component “馬” separately, it means horse, an entirely different kind of animal.

The Total Number of Characters Required for Social Use

For Latin-based language speakers, knowing 3,000 words virtually mean they have a vocabulary of 3,000 words in their language. Chinese is quite different in this regard. Due to the complexity of the Chinese word-building system, a mass of Chinese words can be derived from a given set of characters. 

As a result, you don’t need to learn 100,000 characters to translate an English dictionary of 100,000 words into Chinese. The number of characters for an equivalent Chinese dictionary ranges between 5,000 and 6,000. Although Chinese students must master 6,000 to 8,000 characters, knowing 2,500 to 4,000 characters is enough for everyday use.

Evolution of Chinese Characters

As one of the most ancient languages, Chinese characters have seen many changes in their long history. Initially, the ancient Chinese created symbols and defined the meaning behind it. Setting out as the earliest known pictograph, the Chinese characters had evolved into the modern versions used today, bringing several classic scripts along the way: Oracle bone script (甲骨文), Bronze script (金文), Large Seal script(大篆), Small Seal script (小篆), Clerical script (隸書), Standard script (楷書), Running script (行書), Draft script (草書), and Simplified Draft (简体字). 

The evolution of Chinese characters

You can also head over to our blog about the history of the Chinese language to know more about the fascinating evolution of Chinese characters.

Basic Chinese Characters to Know

Using a QWERTY keyboard allows you to type in any word in a Latin-based language. Chinese uses the same standard keyboard to enter characters, except with an indirect entering method using Pinyin. This standard system romanizes the spelling of Chinese names and words based on their pronunciations. 

There are 20,992 Unicode Chinese characters on computers. With those characters, you can form different Chinese words and phrases. Despite the large number of characters, only 6,500 are commonly used, and mastering 2,500 of those characters is enough to read a Chinese newspaper. So what are the basic Chinese characters to know? We’ve compiled some of the most frequently used Chinese characters for everyday use.

How Many Characters are in Mandarin?

The Chinese language consists of copious dialects and languages. Despite their pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary differences, most of them share the same written Chinese system but not all the characters in it. For example, the verb “find” is “找” in Mandarin, while the Cantonese equivalent is “搵”, a traditional Chinese character that does not exist in the Mandarin vocabulary. 

Consequently, the 20,000 characters compiled in the modern Chinese dictionary are not exclusive to Mandarin. The new Table of General Standard Chinese Characters listed 8,105 simplified Chinese characters that are used by Mandarin speakers. Although the answer to how many characters are in Mandarin remains unknown, the minimum number is at least eight thousand. 

Chinese characters list 

English

Cantonese

Mandarin

no/not

not have

沒有

he/she/it

他/她/它

that

嗰個

那個

to be at

foreigner

鬼佬

外國人

what

乜嘢

什麼

have already done sth.

in that case/then

噉/咁

這樣的話/然後

tired

sleep

side dish

Qualification for Written Chinese Translation

Chinese is the only continually-used ancient language in the world. Due to its intricate tonal and writing systems, Chinese is one of the most challenging languages to learn. According to expert estimation, it takes at least 2,200 class hours for a foreigner to become fluent in Chinese. That would be years. 

Being perfectly conversational in Chinese doesn’t qualify you as an eligible Chinese translator. Because your knowledge of its culture, history, and society also counts. China has a long history that spans 5,000 years. Imagine all the effort you must put into the learning process to become a close match to native Chinese speakers. Not to mention the translation skills required to convert the language. 

That’s why when it comes to translating written Chinese, it’s always best to stick with a professional language service provider with proficiency in your language and Chinese as well as expert experience translating between them. 

If you need to translate your content, whatever topic or type it may be, don’t hesitate to contact Wordspath. We are a first-rate language service company based in southern China, where Cantonese and Mandarin are the native languages. 

Our specialist linguists are native to Mandarin or Cantonese, with many bilingually fluent in both languages. Chinese history and culture have been instilled into these born-and-bred Chinese translators from a young age. Besides, as subject matter experts in their dedicated field, they can skillfully handle linguistic intricacies during the localization process. Contact our expert if you need help with your written Chinese translation.

Conclusion

Dissimilar to the Latin languages, which have an exact number of words in their dictionaries, the Chinese writing system consists of characters built with different components. Different combinations of varying character components can derive hundreds of thousands of characters. As a result, the answer to “how many Chinese characters are there” remains a mystery. But a conservative estimate would be over 100,000. Despite the large number, one only needs 2,500 Chinese characters to socialize in China. 

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