How many Chinese characters exist?

number of chinese characters

How many characters do you have to know to be able to read a Chinese newspaper? And how many Chinese characters exist?

Chinese children learn 3000 characters in the first six school years. This is sufficient for reading books and newspapers. Chinese who can master more than 1500 characters are not regarded as illiterates. Educated Chinese have internalized about 6000 characters. With the knowledge of the most common 3500 characters you are at least able to read about 99.7% of a text.

The exact number of Chinese characters varied during the history of dynasties. In the course of time various dictionaries were written which included different numbers of characters. At the time of the "shell-and-bone" style of writing there were already about 4000 characters in use. The Kangxi Cidian (18th century) which was compiled during the time of the Qing dynasty, includes almost 50 000 Chinese characters.

The "Hanyu da cidian" (Big Chinese Dictionary) from 1990 also comprises about 50.000 characters. The oldest dictionary is the "Shuowen jiezi" (The Explanation of Writing) dating back to 121 A.D.

Modern dictionaries for daily use include fewer characters. The widely used classical dictionary "Mathew's Chinese- English Dictionary" contains 7773 characters. With this vocabulary you can at least translate most texts used in textbooks. The "Neue Chinesisch- Deutsche Wörterbuch" (New Chinese- German Dictionary) contains about 6000 characters. Modern Chinese computer programs also comprise only a limited number of circa 6000 characters.

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