Chinese Characters Vs. Chinese Words

Chinese Characters Vs. Chinese Words – What’s the difference? How many are there of each?

Do you know the difference between Chinese characters vs Chinese words? It’s not that difficult if you understand how the Chinese language is organized. Some of the confusion comes from that fact that Chinese is a phonetic language and doesn’t have a standard alphabet. Without an alphabet, people wonder how to write Chinese and speak it just based on pictorial drawings.


First, let’s clarify some things. Chinese is a pictorial language that doesn’t have an “alphabet.” Chinese words are usually made up of Chinese characters. The word for hello is “你好“ and has two Chinese characters, “你” and “好.” However, this breaks down even further. “你” breaks down into three Radicals. The left side is the radical “亻” which means people. There’s a radical “⺈” and another radical “小” meaning small. These 3 radicals together make up a single Chinese character. You can actually go one step further. Radicals are written by strokes and one radical may take several strokes. “亻” would take two strokes to make the slanted hat and then the vertical line. Wow, a lot isn’ it?

Ok, so now that’s clear, here’s the short answer to each of them.

What are Chinese strokes? How many Chinese strokes are there? 

To understand Chinese writing, let’s start with the smallest component and move up the chain. The smallest component and first thing to learn in Chinese writing are the strokes. There are a certain number of Chinese strokes that are used to make up everything else. Starting

There are many ways to classify strokes. Some systems find up to 37 different strokes, but many of these are simply variations.

What are Chinese radicals? How many Chinese radicals are there?

So now that you’ve got strokes, what do you do with them? Strokes combine to make Chinese radicals. Radicals are still not Chinese character yet. They are the next building block of characters. This picture below is one character made up of multiple radicals.

The count of commonly used radicals in modern abridged dictionaries is often less than 214 (# of Kangxi radicals). The Oxford Concise English–Chinese Dictionary has 188. However you count it, it’s learnable.

What’s a Chinese character? How many Chinese characters are there? 

The next (but not last!) step is Chinese characters. Chinese characters are made up of multiple Chinese radicals. This character below has 2 radicals. Each character has a meaning, but can not always stand on its own as an independent word. Chinese characters SOMETIMES are words but SOMETIMES are just parts of words. This is a big difference.

The largest Chinese dictionary (汉语辞典) defines 23,000 individual Chinese characters. 汉语大字典, on the other hand, says there are 54,678 existing characters (however, most are now considered ‘dead’).

What’s a Chinese word? How many Chinese words are there? 

Finally, we’ve arrived at Chinese words. Chinese words are made up of one or more Chinese characters. The one below is two Chinese character one for 地 meaning ground and 球 meaning ball — with the full word meaning “earth.” Pretty clever, huh? Similarly, the word for the volcano is just 火 “fire” + 山 “mountain.”

In modern Chinese, there are about 106,230 Chinese words.


Average Chinese Speaker’s Vocabulary Size

So the average native Chinese speaker knows all the strokes and radicals. They can combine these into about 3,500 characters, which can be combined into tens of thousands of words. In fact, a literate Chinese person may know 6,000 to 7,000 characters! Almost double that of an ordinary citizen.

How Many Chinese Words Should I learn?

Realistically, you can get by pretty well with only close to 1000 characters. To quote some stats:

  • With only 900 characters you can read 90% of a Chinese newspaper
  • With 2,500 characters you can read 97.97 % of the daily written language
  • With 3,500 characters you can read up to 99.48 %,


How Many Chinese Words in the HSK Test?

HSK words list

how many Chinese words are there

For Chinese, there is one official test the HSK (Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì 汉语水平考试). The test contains 6 levels but even the highest level only requires 2,600 characters to pass it.

Overview of Chinese characters and words

Whatever number of Chinese characters and words you’re shooting for — take it slow and learn well. It’s not as many as you think and a lot of the characters are used multiple times. If you’re looking to take tests, the early HSK levels only require 150 words or 300 words for each one and can be completed within 3-6 months. That is, you could pass 1 of the 6 Chinese levels in just several months!  Go even faster with TutorMandarin — all new students get one free Chinese class to see their current language level and see how fast they can learn with personal online tutoring!

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