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How many symbols are in the Chinese script?

Western alphabets have anywhere between 20 and 50 letters. What about Chinese writing? Can someone download the Chinese alphabet off the web, memorize it and learn how to write Western names in Chinese? The truth is, one cannot. Unlike other scripts with non-latin character sets, Chinese characters are virtually unlimited in number. Moreover, they do not simply stand for sounds like the letters of western alphabets.

Chinese writing does not have an alphabet, instead, it uses symbols, or Chinese characters (hanzi in Chinese, kanji in Japanese). These characters are based on a phonetic instead of a semantic system, that is, their primary function is to represent not sound but meaning. This is why their number is much larger than the number of letters in an alphabet.

In Chinese, every character is a syllable. It seems that originally Chinese language was monsyllabic, in other words, words consisted only of a single syllable. Starting around the beginning of the Han dynasty (3rd century BC) the language started to use more and more words with two or more syllables but by that time the structure of writing has been already fully developed. Therefore, the structure of writing system reflects the original monosyllabic stage. This means that, at least in general, there was a symbol constructed for every word. Because of this, the number of elements in the script is not based on the number of sounds but on the number of words in the language. And, as we all know, the number of words is very large in any language.

Because of this, the number of characters in Chinese writing is very high. It is estimated that to read a newspaper, one must learn about 3,000 characters. College graduates know about 6-7,000, and there are very few people who manage to learn over 15,000. Nevertheless, the actual number of characters is much larger. The Shuowen jiezi, the first surviving Chinese dictionary complied by Xu Shen around 100 AD contains over 9,000 characters, the Kangxi zidian from the 18th century has nearly 47,000. The largest modern dictionaries have over 60,000. Even though most of these symbols are never used, they are still part of the Chinese script.


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