How Many Chinese Characters Do I Need ?


Some intermediate and advanced Chinese learners are eager to learn to read Chinese newspapers and magazines. Meanwhile, they often feel puzzled about how many characters they need to know in order to under Chinese articles. In fact, it’s a bit to explain because the answer to this question largely depends on what level of reading you try to achieve. Nevertheless, it would be helpful to have a general idea of how many characters there are in Chinese and the approximate vocabulary range for understanding Chinese articles of different levels.

How many characters are there in the Chinese language?

Statistically, there are around 90000 characters in Chinese, with 2500 of them being the most commonly-used ones. That means you will be able to recognize most of the characters (99%) in contemporary Chinese newspapers and magazines if you have a solid knowledge of these 2500 characters. However, knowing these characters is only the first step. The more important thing to do is to know the meaning of different Chinese words formed by two or three characters. It’s just like you wouldn’t be able to understand an English word if you only knew the letters it contains.

How many characters do I need to know in order to understand Chinese news?

2500 seems to be a large number, however, according to a research conducted by a Chinese language organization, a good command of 600 commonly-used characters will enable you to recognize 80% of the characters that appear on different social media platforms. Again these 600 characters are just the prerequisite for understanding common Chinese words and phrases. A minimum of 4000 words is what it takes to understand the meaning of 80% of the news reports. If you would like to achieve a higher level of reading comprehension, a knowledge of 1000 characters (a vocabulary of 10000 words) will allow you to understand 90% of the Chinese news and reports.

Would it be enough for me to know 10000 Chinese words?

Knowing 10000 Chinese words means you are in a position to understand materials containing formal and frequently-used words. However, it will still be a bit difficult for you to understand slangs, jargons and Chinese literature in that they contain words that are not used on a regular basis in Chinese people’s daily life. Therefore, a knowledge of 10000 Chinese words won’t be enough if you want to have an insight into Chinese culture and traditions. 

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