How Many Chinese Characters Are There?

Chinese Characters

Chinese characters are a fundamental part of the Chinese language and culture. It has been implemented for thousands of years and is an essential means of communication in China.

However, learning how many Chinese characters there are can be daunting due to their complex nature and vast number. In other languages, words consist of letters that have phonetic components, making them easier to understand and pronounce. However, Chinese is a language with no alphabet, with different characters that can be formed in thousands and combine more Chinese words.

So, whether you’re a beginner or want to upgrade your Chinese skills to the next level, a Chinese Reading and Writing Course is a valuable investment. Let’s dive in and explore the fascinating world of Chinese characters together!

Chinese characters history

The history of Chinese characters dates back to the Shang Dynasty (1600 BCE – 1046 BCE) in ancient China. It is considered the earliest known period of Chinese character development. During this time, characters were inscribed on oracle bones as a means of divination.

Emperor Zhou Statue — Stock Photo, Image

The Zhou Dynasty (1046 BCE – 256 BCE) followed the Shang Dynasty and saw the development of early seal script characters. These characters were used for official documentation purposes and were inscribed on bronze vessels, which were used for ritual purposes.

The Qin Dynasty (221 BCE – 206 BCE) was a significant period in the history of Chinese characters. The first standardized set of characters, the ‘Small Seal Script,’ was created during this time. These characters were uniform in size and shape and were used for official communication throughout the empire.

The Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) saw the development of the ‘Clerical Script’ characters used primarily for writing on bamboo slips and silk. This period also saw calligraphy’s growth in China, where skilled calligraphers used brush and ink to create beautiful and artistic characters.

The Tang Dynasty (618 CE – 907 CE) marked the beginning of the ‘Regular Script,’ a highly stylized form of writing with a consistent stroke order. The Song Dynasty (960 CE – 1279 CE) saw the ‘Regular Script’ refinement into a more streamlined form known as ‘Running Script.’

The Ming Dynasty (1368 CE – 1644 CE) saw the creation of the simplified Chinese characters of ‘Regular Script’, which became the standard script used in formal documents.

Throughout history, Chinese characters have changed significantly due to political, social, and cultural factors. Today, Chinese characters are still widely used in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other countries with significant Chinese populations.

Chinese characters evolution

In the annals of human history, few writing systems have undergone such rapid evolution and transformation as Chinese characters. These ancient symbols were used by numerous civilizations over thousands of years, from the Shang Dynasty to the present day.

The evolution of Chinese characters can be seen in many specific examples, but one that stands out is the character for “horse.” Originally, the traditional characters depicted a horse with four legs and a mane. Over time, the character became more stylized and simplified, resulting in the modern-day character that is still recognizable as a horse but has fewer strokes and a more abstract form.

Horse - Evolution of Chinese Characters

It’s incredible that within just a few centuries, the Chinese script evolved from traditional characters to simplified characters, each with its unique style, era, use, and qualities. Let’s take a closer look at each script of the evolution of Chinese characters:

Oracle bone Script

The Oracle bone script is the earliest known form of Chinese writing. It was used primarily as a divination tool by royal families and priests during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC). The characters are written in an angular, pictorial style that resembles ancient Chinese symbols or drawings. They usually have a few components — a phonetic compound, a pictogram, or a combination.

Bronze Script

The Bronze script emerged during the late Shang Dynasty and was widely used during the Zhou Dynasty. It was inscribed on bronze vessels and weapons and had a more standardized and recognizable form than the Oracle bone script. The characters became more intricate and ornamental, with curved lines and more complex shapes.

Large Seal Script

The Large Seal script, also known as the Great Seal script, was developed during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). It was characterized by its bold and powerful strokes, which were usually carved onto stone or bronze. The characters became more uniform and symmetrical, with a square shape and sharp edges.

Small seal script

The Small Seal script, known as the Lesser Seal script, emerged during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). It is a refined version of the Large Seal script, with smoother and more flowing lines. It was often used for official documents and inscriptions.

Clerical script

The Clerical script, also known as the Official script, was developed during the Han Dynasty. It was widely used for official documents, inscriptions, and calligraphy. The characters were more rounded and cursive, with fewer strokes and more fluid movements.

Standard script

The Standard script, known as the Regular script, was developed during the Wei, Jin, and Northern and Southern Dynasties (220-589 AD). It became the standard form of writing throughout China and is still widely used today. The characters were simplified, with fewer strokes and more standardized shapes.

Running Script

The Running script, or the Grass script, was developed during the Han Dynasty. It was a highly cursive and fluid everyday writing style, with characters flowing into each other. It was often used for personal letters and informal communication.

Draft Script

The Draft script, or the Cursive script, was a more informal version of the Running script. It was often used for quick notes and personal communication. The characters were highly cursive and often illegible to those unfamiliar with the script.

Simplified Script

Chinese characters collage — Stock Photo, Image

The Simplified script was developed in the 1950s as part of the Chinese government’s way to increase literacy rates. Simplified Chinese characters have fewer strokes and more standardized shapes. The Simplified script is now the official script used in Mainland China, while Traditional Chinese characters are still used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other regions that use Chinese as their spoken language.

Number of Official Chinese Characters

How many Chinese characters are there? Chinese characters, also known as Hanzi, are logograms in written Chinese. The number of official Chinese characters is over 50,000, but most Chinese people recognize only about 6,000 of them. Chinese history teachers, linguistics, and translators may know up to 10,000 Chinese characters.

Learning approximately 3,000 Chinese characters will enable Chinese students to read 95% of the written modern dictionary of the Chinese language. Similarly, learning just about 1,000 Chinese characters will allow students to comprehend 80% of modern Chinese. It is worth noting that Chinese characters can have multiple meanings and pronunciations, making their mastery challenging.

Types of Chinese characters

Understanding the different types of Chinese characters is crucial for Chinese learners because it allows them to recognize patterns and associations between characters. It also helps learners to develop a deeper understanding of the language and its cultural significance.

By knowing the different types of Chinese characters, learners can better understand the meaning and pronunciation of new words. This knowledge can also aid in remembering and recognizing characters, making learning more efficient and effective. Here are the main types of Chinese characters:

Pictograms (象形字)


These characters represent objects or ideas through a picture or symbol that resembles what it represents. For example, the character for “sun” (日) looks like a circle with a dot in the middle.

Ideograms (指事字)

These characters represent abstract ideas or concepts that a pictogram cannot represent. They typically consist of a combination of strokes that suggest the word’s meaning. For example, the character for “one” (一) represents unity or singularity.

Compound ideographs (会意字)

These characters consist of two or more ideograms to create a new concept. For example, the character for “love” (爱) is formed by combining the characters for “heart” and “friend.”

Phonetic loan characters (假借字)

These characters are borrowed from others with the same or similar pronunciation but a different meaning. For example, the character for “to borrow” (借) is pronounced the same as the character for “to fake” (假) but has a different meaning.

Phonetic compounds (形声字)

These characters are formed by combining a phonetic component with a semantic component. The phonetic component provides the character’s sound, while the semantic component provides the meaning. For example, the character for “big” (大) is formed by combining the phonetic component “da” with the semantic component “man.”

Transfer Characters (转注字)

These characters are derived from ancient forms and represent different sounds or meanings. For example, the character for “person” (人) was derived from an ancient form that meant “two people standing together.”

How are Chinese characters written?

Chinese calligraphy — Stock Photo, Image

Writing Chinese characters are among the oldest writing systems in the world, with a history that spans thousands of years. They are complex characters made up of a combination of strokes and radicals. To understand the Chinese writing system, it is important to have an overview of the structure of these characters.

One important aspect of Chinese characters is that they are logographic, meaning that when you write, they represent a specific word or concept rather than a sound. It differs from phonetic language writing systems such as the Latin alphabet, which represents individual sounds.


Stroke refers to the individual lines that make up a Chinese character. These strokes are the building blocks of the characters and are drawn in a specific order. There are eight basic strokes in Chinese characters, including horizontal, vertical, left-falling, right-falling, and more. Each stroke has a specific name and direction, and it is vital to follow the correct stroke order when writing Chinese characters.

For example, the Chinese character for “person” (人) consists of two vertical and horizontal strokes. The vertical stroke is drawn first, followed by the horizontal stroke.


Radicals are components of general standard Chinese characters that can indicate the meaning or pronunciation of the same character. They are often used to sort different characters in dictionaries and other reference materials. Chinese radicals can be simple or complex, often recognizable parts of larger characters.

For example, the Chinese character for “water” (水) consists of two strokes and is radical. This radical appears in a number of characters that have a connection with water, such as “river” (江) and “ocean” (海).

List of basic Chinese characters

Here are some most common Chinese characters for you:

  1. Hello – Nǐ hǎo – 你好
  2. Goodbye – Zàijiàn – 再见
  3. Thank you – Xiè xiè – 谢谢
  4. Please – Qǐng – 请
  5. Sorry – Duìbùqǐ – 对不起
  6. Yes – Shì – 是
  7. No – Bù shì – 不是
  8. Love – Ài – 爱
  9. Friend – Péngyou – 朋友
  10. Family – Jiātíng – 家庭


Chinese characters are a part of the Chinese language and culture that has heavily influenced the development of written Asian languages over thousands of years. Despite their vast number and complexity, these characters can be a beautiful art form written in different fonts. It is important to acknowledge this integral aspect of Chinese letters and words to understand more about the structure and development of Chinese communication.

Learning how many Chinese characters and having a basic understanding can open an entire world of possibilities for speakers who wish to explore the beauty surrounding the Chinese language. Furthermore, by appreciating the effort in perfecting one Chinese character, we can begin rubbing away at its seemingly impenetrable nature and discover what lies beneath, thus allowing us to fully appreciate its meanings and true value within daily life.

While it may seem daunting to non-native speakers, tools such as the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) test are available to help assess proficiency levels and guide language learning. Whether you are a novice or seeking to enhance your Chinese language skills, taking the HSK test can be valuable in achieving your goals. Mastering the Chinese language may take time and effort, but with practice and determination, it is certainly achievable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Search Bar

Latest Posts

Contact Us

I would like to receive course information updates, promotional materials and exclusive invites from Linda Mandarin via:
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Contact Info