How Many Chinese Words Are There? How many Chinese Characters?

total number of chinese words

How many words are there in the Chinese language? Or how many Chinese characters are there? Is it the same or does it make a difference?

Chinese is not English. Chinese is a comprised of pictograms that are referred to as characters. Characters are used alone or combined together to make Chinese words. One character can be combined with hundreds of other characters to make thousands of unique words.

How Many Chinese Characters are there? How many Chinese words are there?

So maybe let’s start here. How many Chinese characters are there? The largest Chinese dictionary (汉语辞典) lists out 23,000 unique Chinese characters. Another source, the great compendium of Chinese (汉语大字典) says there are 54,678 existing characters (however, this is how many characters there were throughout history, even though most are now considered ‘dead’ characters now). So how many words can these characters combine into? The largest Chinese dictionary says these characters can be combined into 370,000 unique Chinese words.

Now that is a lot. However, this dictionary is trying to encompass every word uttered or written in Chinese. It includes scientific terms, zoological definitions, highly technical words, and even loan words from other languages that are said in Chinese.

Realistically in modern Chinese, there are about 7,000 characters that are used.  These 7,000  characters can be combined into 106,230 Chinese words.

Average Chinese Speaker’s Vocabulary Size

So how many characters does the average Chinese person know? A Chinese person of average education should know about 3,500 characters. A literate Chinese person may know 6,000 to 7,000 characters. But wait! It gets easier. 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 daily written language
  • With 3,500 characters you can read up to 99.48 %,

How Many Chinese Words in the HSK Test?

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.

As for memorizing 2,600 characters — don’t sweat it! Take it slow as you beginning your long journey of learning Chinese. 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! wow! Go even faster with TutorMandarin — all new students get 1 free Chinese class to see their current language level and see how effective a professional tutor is.

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