How Many Chinese Characters Are There? A Guide for Fluency and HSK Goals
How many Chinese characters do you need to know to be considered fluent in Chinese?
Or to pass the different HSK test levels?
In this post, we’ll walk you through the importance of Chinese characters and how learning them can improve your language skills beyond just word recognition.
Finally, we’ll use the HSK levels to guide you along your learning journey.
- How Many Characters Are There in Chinese?
- How Many Chinese Characters Do I Need to Know?
- 3 Techniques to Hit Your 2,000 Characters
- The History of Chinese Characters
- Why Focus on Learning Chinese Characters?
How Many Characters Are There in Chinese?
There are roughly 50,000 Chinese characters in the standard national dictionary, with some dictionaries even going up to 80,000. Most of these characters aren’t commonly used, though–you only need to know around 2,000 Chinese characters to be literate. By 3,500 characters, you’ll recognize nearly 99.5% of modern Chinese writing, while college-educated people know around 8,000 characters.
Traditional Chinese vs. Simplified Chinese
Traditional characters make up the large majority of all Chinese characters. 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.
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.
Here’s a video that explains the differences between traditional and simplified characters:
If you’re not sure whether to learn traditional or simplified, it all depends on your purpose 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.
Check out this video to learn more about how radicals work:
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 two questions that need an answer here:
- How many characters do I need for fluency?
- How many words do I need for fluency?
How many Chinese characters do I need to know to be fluent?
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.
How many Chinese words do I need to know to be fluent?
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.
How many Chinese characters do I need to know to pass 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).
Here’s a great explanation of how each level of vocabulary knowledge translates to Chinese ability, found on the official HSK website:
|To pass:||You need to be able to:||How many characters you need to know:||How many words you need to know:|
|HSK Level 1||use very simple words and phrases||178||150|
|HSK Level 2||exchange simple information||349||300|
|HSK Level 3||communicate at a basic level||623||600|
|HSK Level 4||fluently converse in Chinese||1,071||1,200|
|HSK Level 5||read Chinese newspapers||1,709||2,500|
|HSK Level 6||effectively express yourself||2,633||5,000|
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 on 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
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.
Watch Authentic Chinese Videos
A good textbook is important but you’ll be missing a whole other world of Chinese if you don’t also use authentic Chinese content. Authentic content is the stuff that Chinese speakers make for other Chinese speakers, the kind of media that native speakers watch on their day off.
When you use this kind of authentic content to learn Chinese, you’re getting real, natural Chinese. You get to hear words in context and learn them naturally, which goes a long way when it’s time to use these words in conversation yourself. That’s why it’s so important to immerse yourself in authentic Chinese TV shows, YouTube channels—even podcasts and books.
There are programs designed to help you learn from authentic sources. The FluentU program, for instance, expands on this concept, pairing natural videos with interactive subtitles and other learning tools. You’ll be able to watch movie clips, music videos, inspirational videos and more, and click on any word to pause the video and check its meaning:
You can switch between traditional or simplified characters for the subtitles and even see the pinyin. Multimedia flashcards, a contextual video dictionary and quizzes that include voice input help you pick up new characters easily.
FluentU works on both web and mobile (Android and iOS).
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 taking the exam.
The History of Chinese Characters
Chinese characters have actually 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.
Why Focus on Learning Chinese Characters?
It’s not just about writing and reading.
Studying Chinese characters can 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 delivery truck, and not 火车 (huǒ chē) meaning train. The character 货 (huò) refers to deliveries or goods. 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.
Make those Chinese characters work for you. Each character conquered is another step towards Chinese fluency!