How many Chinese characters do you need to know to achieve fluency in the language?
The simple, unabridged answer is…:
Even if you couldn’t read or write a single Chinese character but you could have a full conversation with a native Chinese speaker, wouldn’t you be fluent?
But let’s get real.
Whether you’re studying Chinese by yourself or in a classroom environment, you’re bound to encounter witten Chinese as part of your curriculum.
And if you ever moved to China to learn in a total immersion environment, how would you expect to read a menu or navigate street signs with zero Chinese character knowledge?
So even if you could get by with zero Chinese characters, how many do you need to be considered fluent in Chinese? Or to pass the different HSK test levels? These are important questions to consider as a learner, no matter what your goals are!
In this post, we’ll walk you through the importance of Chinese characters and how learning them can actually improve your language skills beyond just word recognition.
Then, we’ll show you how many characters (as well as words) you should aim for to achieve basic, proficient or fluent knowledge of Chinese.
Finally, we’ll use the HSK levels to guide you along your learning journey—both the current 1-6 and the upcoming updated levels 1-9.
Ready? Let’s go!
Why Focus on Learning Chinese Characters?
It’s not just about writing and reading.
Studying Chinese characters can actually help you memorize new words and understand the language as a whole in a more meaningful way.
Characters help you identify the meanings of words. I discovered that this is especially useful when you’re still sharpening your tone-hearing skills.
I once bought a fridge for my apartment from a local seller. After buying it, the seller insisted (so I thought) that we needed to catch a train to get it to our apartment. As you can imagine, I respectfully disagreed.
Turns out she said 货车 (huò chē) meaning flatbed or delivery truck, and not 火车 (huǒ chē) meaning train. The character 货 (huò) refers to deliveries. If I’d known the characters, I’d have had a better chance of distinguishing between those words.
Characters also help you remember words based on their components. You can make stories or jokes from them to create mnemonic devices.
For example, a classmate of mine once had a discussion about how 安 (ān), a character meaning “peace,” could be viewed as sexist, since the character is made up of a woman or 女 (nǚ) under a roof or 宀 (mián). That little insight made the word and its characters much more memorable.
Speaking of making them more memorable, calligraphy also happens to be an excellent study method for remembering characters. It’s especially helpful for visual learners and anyone who remembers better by doing.
By learning how to write characters artistically, you’ll gain a better sense of structure and stroke order. Once you get a feel of that flow, writing characters will become second nature to you. You’ll be improving your writing skills and memory retention for characters.
Plus, writing and reading this style of Chinese cursive writing will also help you later down the line when you’re trying to decipher any handwritten text.
Let’s not forget that practicing calligraphy is also an opportunity to connect with Chinese culture. Chinese calligraphy is a highly esteemed form of art in China, therefore a great way to show some cultural appreciation.
The History of Chinese Characters
It’s fascinating how Chinese characters have evolved over thousands of years.
The first iterations of Chinese characters date all the way back to the Shang Dynasty, which lasted from 1600 to 1046 BC.
Back then, they were oracle bone inscriptions or ancestral pictograms carved onto tortoise shells and animal bones. These bone inscriptions were then followed by symbols carved into bronze.
Bronze inscriptions appeared at the end of the Shang Dynasty and were prevalent during the Zhou Dynasty or “Bronze Age,” which was from 1046 to 771 BC. The two inscriptions were quite similar, but the bronze characters were more structured and had thicker lines.
During the Warring States Period from 475 to 221 BC, there was no standard script. Different parts of the empire had their own scripts, but all that changed once emperor Qin Shihuang united China. The standard written language in the Qin Dynasty (221 to 206 BC) was known as small seal characters. These had proportional brush strokes and a sort of diamond shape.
They’re also the foundation of the contemporary writing system.
The Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD) ushered in the official script. This was where the written language no longer looked like pictograms and more like characters with curved and broken strokes.
At the end of the Han Dynasty, the official script transitioned into the regular script, but it only became popular during the Northern and Southern Dynasties from 420 to 589 AD. During this era, the regular script continuously underwent stylistic changes. It reached its final form in the Tang Dynasty, which spanned from 618 to 907 AD, and it’s what we’ve come to recognize as Traditional Chinese.
It wasn’t until 1954 when the government simplified the regular script for printing use. This was to increase literacy through China, which involved the lessening of brush strokes.
How Many Chinese Characters Do I Need to Know? Vocab Goals for Fluency and the HSK
How Many Chinese Characters Are There?
No, really: There are roughly 50,000 characters in the standard national Chinese dictionary. Plus, new ones are still being created—you may find them online rather than in the dictionary.
Traditional characters make up the large majority of that number. According to the Table of General Standard Chinese Characters, there are 8,105 simplified characters, although that number also includes characters that remain the same in both Chinese forms.
As mentioned earlier, the government began simplifying characters in the 1950s. By 1986, over 2,000 characters were simplified. Comparing the numbers of all simplified characters versus the characters that have been simplified, experts guess that the current number of new simplified characters is around 3,000 or so.
If you’re not sure whether to learn traditional or simplified, it all depends on your purposes for learning Mandarin. Traditional Chinese is preferred in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, so if you plan on traveling or moving to any one of those places, you’re better off studying the traditional form. If you’re headed to the mainland, Singapore or Malaysia, simplified Chinese is the way to go.
Is There a Chinese Alphabet?
Now that you know how many characters are out there, you might be wondering if there’s an alphabet system in place, and how many letters there are.
The truth is that there is no Chinese alphabet.
There are some who refer to the pinyin system as the Chinese alphabet, but that’s inaccurate. Yes, pinyin uses the Latin alphabet to show how you’d say Chinese characters, but pinyin letters are only used for pronunciation purposes and not for creating words.
It’s a little confusing, and it doesn’t help that there are 26 letters in both the English alphabet and the pinyin system. Just know that unlike the letters of Western alphabets, Chinese languages don’t rely on pinyin letters to formulate characters and words.
Chinese Radicals and Components
Instead, Chinese characters are composed of building blocks known as radicals and components.
Radicals index and categorize characters. Basically, they’re like the first letter of English words we use to look them up in a dictionary. While you can look up words online using pinyin, it’s still pretty handy learning this classification for Chinese characters.
For the most part, characters contain one main radical, which you can usually find either on the left or top of the character. There are 214 radicals in total.
One example of a radical is 匚 (fāng) which means “box,” and it’s included in characters like 区 (qū) meaning “area” and 匠 (jiàng) meaning “craftsman.”
Moving onto components. We briefly touched on components earlier, but let’s discuss them in further detail.
There are two types:
- Phonetic components are parts of a character that offer pronunciation clues
- Semantic components are parts of a character that impart some sort of meaning
Radicals can also act as phonetic or semantic components. Others sometimes refer to them as “phonetic radicals” and “semantic radicals.”
Let’s take a look at the character 妈 (mā) for “mother.” It’s composed of two parts:
- 女 (nǚ) — female
- 马 (mǎ) — horse
As you can see, 女 would be the semantic component or semantic radical that indicates the character is a female, while 马 would be the phonetic component that shares the same pinyin as 妈, just with a different tone.
Chinese Characters vs. Chinese Words
To complicate things, Chinese characters can represent standalone words. They can also represent components for creating other words, ideas and concepts. 女 and 马 are perfect examples of characters that are standalone words, as well as components for building other characters.
That means the combinations of characters like those form all kinds of words, which is great news for Chinese learners. Basically, a handful of Chinese characters can be combined and reorganized to express a wide variety of ideas—you don’t need to learn a new Chinese character for every new object or action that you encounter.
For example, check out these characters that are each equivalent to a single English word:
吃 (chī) — eat
山 (shān) — mountain
好 (hǎo) — good
火 (huǒ) — fire
上 (shàng) — up
下 (xià) — down
头 (tóu) — head
车 (chē) — car
人 (rén) — person
Now let’s do a quick exercise. Using the nine characters above, how would you say the following words?
Go up the mountain
Come down the mountain
The front of a car
Get on (as in getting on a bus)
Get off (as in getting off of a bus)
Here are the answers:
火山 (huǒ shān) — literally “fire mountain”
山头 (shān tóu) — literally “mountain head”
上山 (shàng shān) — literally “up mountain”
下山 (xià shān) — literally “down mountain”
好人 (hǎo rén) — literally “good person”
吃人 (chī rén) — literally “eat people,” describing someone who takes advantage of other people
人头 (rén tóu) — literally “people heads,” kind of like how we say “headcount”
好吃 (hǎo chī) — literally “good eat”
火车 (huǒ chē) — literally “fire car,” referring to the wood and carbon fires that would power old-style trains
车头 (chē tóu) — literally “car head”
上车 (shàng chē) — literally “up car,” describing your action getting onto or into a vehicle
下车 (xià chē) — literally “down car,” describing your action when getting out of a vehicle
How Many Chinese Characters Do I Need to Know?
You can be fluent in English even if you don’t come close to knowing all of the 171,476 words in the Oxford Dictionary.
Chinese isn’t any different in this respect.
As you just learned, characters are both standalone words or components of other words and ideas. So, there are actually two questions that need an answer here:
- How many characters do I need for fluency?
- How many words do I need for fluency?
The average Chinese person only needs to know around 2,000 characters to be recognized as fluent. Those characters represent a basic education level that can help you make it in day-to-day life.
The word count is where your Chinese fluency goals come into play. Because Chinese fluency is generally measured by character count, it’s assumed that you’d be able to put those characters into words the way we did with the exercise above.
To understand how your vocabulary knowledge impacts your fluency level, I recommend that you follow the standards set by the HSK test.
Each level of the HSK test increases your number of words, from Level 1 (150 words) to Level 6 (5,000 words)—at least, with the current exam format. But more on that in a bit!
Here’s a great explanation of how each level of vocabulary knowledge translates to Chinese ability, found on the official HSK website:
|If you can pass...||...you can:|
|HSK Level 1||use very simple words and phrases|
|HSK Level 2||exchange simple information|
|HSK Level 3||communicate at a basic level|
|HSK Level 4||fluently converse in Chinese|
|HSK Level 5||read Chinese newspapers|
|HSK Level 6||effectively express yourself|
Fluently speaking Chinese (or any language, for that matter) also depends a lot on context. You might be fluent in English, but that doesn’t mean you can necessarily understand the legalese in a contract or can sit in on a random business meeting and grasp all the jargon.
The Bottom Line
If you really want a character count, shoot for around 2,000.
Base your character studies off of what you actually read, whether online, in a newspaper or whatever other media outside of a textbook is available to you. In other words, make sure you’re learning relevant Chinese characters.
With those 2,000 characters, you should be able to learn around 3,500 to 4,000 words.
The HSK tests put basic fluency around Level 4, but Level 6 is when you can effectively express yourself in spoken or written Chinese. Just remember that fluently speaking those characters and words doesn’t completely depend on knowing how to read or write them.
3 Techniques to Hit Your 2,000 Characters
Watch Subtitled Chinese Videos on FluentU
The best way to learn new Chinese words and characters is through authentic, immersive material.
FluentU naturally eases you into learning the Mandarin language, and you’ll learn Chinese as it’s spoken in real life.
You'll find a wide range of contemporary videos that cover all different interests and levels, as you can see here:
FluentU brings these native Chinese videos within reach via interactive captions. You can tap on any word to instantly look it up.
All words have carefully written definitions and examples that will help you understand how a word is used. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
From the description page, you can access interactive transcripts under the Dialogue tab, or review words and phrases under Vocab.
The best part is that FluentU always keeps track of your learning. It customizes quizzes to focus on areas that need attention and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. In other words, you get a 100% personalized experience.
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Read Real Chinese Schoolbooks
In school, you learn a subject, and according to the subject, you learn new words that contain related ideas. Basically, you passively learn the language you’re speaking in class.
Grab some Chinese elementary school classroom textbooks on topics that interest you and dig in. You might already know what you’re being taught in those math, science or other books, but you don’t know those concepts in Chinese.
Don’t limit your learning to simply memorizing a character and its meaning. Give the character practical context. If there’s a workbook that goes with the textbook, use it. And, whenever you can, include those new words in conversation.
Follow the HSK Levels
The HSK test is based on how you use the characters you know to form words. This language test can lead you to practical success. Here’s how:
- HSK Mock tests can help you study, even if you don’t plan on taking the test. They’ll get you reading and writing with important Chinese characters.
- Use apps with sections like the “words” section of Pleco to see how characters are used. Pleco has a built-in HSK vocabulary study list. The more thoroughly you know a character, the more useful it’ll become.
Use the HSK as a guide for character learning, whether or not you plan on actually taking the exam. Learn more about this useful study tool below!
How Many Characters Should I Know for All HSK Levels?
As of this moment, the HSK is divided into six levels. But in the next couple of years, it’ll be going through some changes.
Because the current model doesn’t match international frameworks for testing language fluency, the HSK will be restructured with new levels and language requirements. It’s not just about memorizing a set number of characters anymore.
The last time the HSK was updated was back in 2010 when it went from 11 to six levels with lowered requirements. The new HSK will introduce three new levels (7-9). These new levels will go through the first phase of trials in December 2021 and may be available to the public as early as March 2022.
As of now, the HSK only tests your listening, reading and writing skills, with a separate HSKK test for speaking skills. The new HSK will consolidate all four language skills into one well-rounded assessment. It’ll also test additional skills such as translation and handwriting abilities. So if you’re feeling hesitant about taking up calligraphy, the new test might convince you otherwise!
Another major change is the number of characters and words you should know for each level.
In addition to redefining those requirements, the new HSK will outline the number of syllables (pinyin combinations) and grammar structures needed to pass each level.
Overall, the New HSK will be raising its standards for Chinese proficiency. But the good news is that the government is working to modernize the test with topics and vocabulary applicable to the current world. So while it sounds like the new HSK will be more demanding, the new testing scheme will be more relevant to Chinese learners than it has ever been in the past.
The current tests are solely administered in simplified Chinese, and there haven’t been any updates to indicate whether the new curriculum will include an option between traditional and simplified Chinese. This may sway you to learn simplified Chinese, though you can always write your answers down using traditional characters if you’re taking the paper-based test.
Now, let’s get down to the specifics.
Since the new HSK hasn’t been written yet, let’s go through the current standards and compare them with the proposed changes for the new curriculum.
Current Standards: 178 characters, 150 words
As you saw in the table earlier, a student who passes the HSK 1 can use very simple words, phrases and everyday expressions.
For characters, the vocabulary you’ll need includes personal introductions and simple question words, as you’ll need to be able to answer very basic questions.
New Standards: 269 syllables, 300 characters, 500 words, 48 grammar points
The new HSK 1 will go beyond those very basic skills. You’ll also need to pay attention to your writing speed, as the handwriting component of the test will require you to write 10 words per minute.
Current Standards: 349 characters, 300 words
The current HSK 2 states that you should be able to exchange simple information.
At this level, you can recognize and use expressions related to your background and family information, your job, shopping, ordering food at a restaurant, immediate surroundings and so forth. You can also respond to questions in basic Chinese conversations.
New Standards: 468 syllables, 600 characters, 1,272 words, 129 grammar points
The New HSK 2 will have additional topics. Plus, the expected writing speed at this level is 15 words per minute.
Current Standards: 623 characters, 600 words
Currently, HSK 3 standards state that you should be able to communicate at a basic level.
At this stage, you can recognize and form simple sentences and questions. You can also make basic comparisons and describe objects.
The topics covered in this level include travel, hobbies, the workplace, and school. You can also talk about feelings, opinions and future plans.
New Standards: 608 syllables, 900 characters, 2,245 words, 210 grammar points
In addition to extra topics and vocabulary, you’ll need to be able to write 20 characters per minute.
Current Standards: 1,071 characters, 1,200 words
At this level, you can comfortably discuss a variety of topics, both abstract and concrete. With the given text and audio, you can also state the main argument and identify the advantages and disadvantages.
Overall, you have the ability to interact with native speakers in different settings with little to no strain.
New Standards: 724 syllables, 1,200 characters, 3,245 words, 286 grammar points
One of the biggest issues with the current HSK is the huge leap between levels 3 and 4. According to the table above, learners immediately go from basic communication to fluent conversation.
Thankfully, the new HSK will be restructuring the intermediate levels. The remodeled will have a smoother transition between each level.
It’s also worth noting that from HSK 4 and onward, you’ll also be tested on your translation skills in the speaking and writing portions.
Current Standards: 1,709 characters, 2,500 words
Reaching this level means you understand Mandarin in a variety of settings, both formal and informal. Here, you also have the ability to read Chinese newspapers. This means you can read longer texts and understand main ideas and implicit meanings.
You also have little to no trouble expressing yourself and can write lengthy texts that are organized with transitions, conjunctions and other advanced grammar structures.
New Standards: 822 syllables, 1,500 characters, 4,316 words, 357 grammar points
Up until this level, the new HSK will be ramping up the number of required characters. To ease learners into the advanced levels, the character count for this level will be reduced but the number of words will be increased.
Current Standards: 2,633 characters, 5,000 words
For the time being, HSK 6 is the highest level for advanced learners. The expectation here is that you’re fluent and can easily understand everything you hear and read. You can also summarize anything you read or hear, recall details and give explanations in a coherent matter.
All in all, if you pass this test, that means you can express yourself effectively in any given circumstance.
New Standards: 908 syllables, 1,800 characters, 5,456 words, 424 grammar points
Originally the test for advanced learners who can effectively express themselves, the New HSK 6 will be remodeled as the final intermediate level to make it a natural progression to the advanced levels.
HSK 7-9 (New Levels)
New Standards: 1,110 syllables, 3,000 characters, 11,092 words, 572 grammar points
Right now, HSK 5 and 6 are considered the advanced levels. Once HSK 7-9 are launched, HSK 1-3 will be known as the elementary levels and HSK 4-6 as the intermediate levels.
These new advanced levels will truly test your Chinese fluency, and they’ll be ideal for those wanting to pursue a degree or career in Chinese. The translation portion of these levels will also be on a professional level.
HSK 7: Some of the proposed advanced topics include science and technology, sports, literature, major university courses, mental health, among others.
HSK 8: This level will take things up a notch, with texts and audios on possible subjects like linguistics, history, philosophy, politics and the news in general. It’ll be expected that you can have deeper conversations about slightly more complex issues.
HSK 9: This is where you’ll need to know how to communicate on the most complex of topics, like international affairs, trade, academic research, policies, etc. This last level will really test your ability to communicate in formal interactions, such as business meetings and academic settings.
Make those Chinese characters work for you. Each character conquered is another step towards Chinese fluency!
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