How many Chinese characters are there really? This can be answered with a simple number, but this number itself in isolation does not tell us much. Instead, if we dig deeper into the question, it would reveal some fundamental characteristics of the Chinese language. To start with, what actually is a character?
A character or a word?
A character is a number of strokes put in a specific arrangement within a square to signify certain meanings. It is important to note that a character in Chinese, is not the same as a word, which in linguistic terms means “a single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing”. While each Chinese character has its own meaning, they are commonly used in compounds with two, three or four other characters to form distinct words in the Chinese sense, or 词语 (cíyǔ).
Norwegians are of course no stranger to compound. There are indeed a lot of sammensatte ord. Take the word for railway, or “jernbane”, which is made up of two words with their unique meanings: “jern” and “bane”.
In Chinese the word for railway 铁路 ( tiělù ) is also made up of the two characters for “iron” 铁(tiě), and “road” 路(lù), which do not mean rail when used alone. Since every character is monosyllabic, all the words with more than one syllable are essentially compounds. In general, the most commonly used are two-characters compounds, but there are also many three- and four- characters compounds. More so than in Norwegian or English, compounds are a fundamental part of the Chinese language, to the extent that we have a specific dictionary for listing out all of them for each character. The dictionary is called辞海 (cíhăi, or the “Sea of Expressions”), and it has over 127,000 entries.
The most comprehensive dictionary
Some diligent readers may have done a quick check on the Wikipedia page which points out that the Yitizi Zidian 异体字字典 is the largest dictionary with over a hundred thousand characters. This claim, however, is only partially true, but it opens up another relevant topic: the alteration of characters.
Just as words from other languages which have changed their spellings since they were made, so are characters in Chinese modified and evolved over the past two thousand years and end up with multiple versions. Yitizi Zidian, first compiled in the year 2000, is actually created for the purpose of identifying the different variations of all characters, therefore many entries are in fact only different forms of the same character.
In fact, its appendix of unique characters contains only around 29 000 entries. One significant recent event which has created a significant number of variations in characters was the Chinese government’s introduction of a set of simplified characters to replace the traditional ones in the mid1950s, with the aim of making it easier to learn the language and reduce illiteracy.
Simplified vs Traditional
Somewhat similar to Norwegian which can be expressed in Nynorsk and Bokmål, the modern Chinese language also has two written versions, simplified and traditional. In total, out of the most commonly used 7000 characters, about one-third are simplified. In simplified characters, some of the strokes in the traditional characters are replaced or erased all together. Simplified characters are however not introduced in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, jurisdictions which still uses the traditional characters now. The debate between traditional and simplified is still on-going and we can explore the topic on another post!
You need only 800 … to start!
As for a simple answer to the question, the most comprehensive printed Chinese dictionary to date has a collection of 85 568 characters. To most people’s relief, you do not need to know all of these characters to claim to know Chinese. The good news is, the most commonly used characters are highly concentrated. One can already understand a broadsheet newspaper with merely a couple thousand characters. For a few pointers, you can look at these numbers: · Native Chinese with higher education on average know about 8000 characters. · Most Chinese native children who go to school would learn about 2000 characters by the age of 12. · The syllabus for basic level of Chinese as a second language includes the most frequently used 800 characters, which is possible to manage within three months!If that still seems a little overwhelming, there is a Chinese saying: 千里之行 始于足下(qīan lĭ zhì xíng shĭ yú zú xìa) The journey of a thousand miles begin from the first step. Why not start now?