How many Chinese characters do you need to know?

I probably know less than 200 Chinese characters at this point. I started learning not to long ago and I have been amazed at how knowing so few can go so far. I am hoping to start adding a daily regimen of characters to my already busy learning cycle in October, so I have been doing a little research on the internet. I came across this chart and it blew me away. If it is accurate then it definitely helps prove that characters aren’t the main reason Chinese is so hard! I am not saying that learning 3,000 characters is going to be easy but if you can understand 90% of written Chinese with just 1,100 characters, that seems pretty amazing.

According to the statistics, a knowledge of a given number of the most common characters should result in the following estimated understanding of the Chinese language:

100 characters → 42% understanding 1600 characters → 95.0% understanding
200 characters → 55% understanding 1700 characters → 95.5% understanding
300 characters → 64% understanding 1800 characters → 96.0% understanding
400 characters → 70% understanding 1900 characters → 96.5% understanding
500 characters → 75% understanding 2000 characters → 97.0% understanding
600 characters → 79% understanding 2100 characters → 97.4% understanding
700 characters → 82% understanding 2200 characters → 97.7% understanding
800 characters → 85% understanding 2300 characters → 98.0% understanding
900 characters → 87% understanding 2400 characters → 98.3% understanding
1000 characters → 89% understanding 2500 characters → 98.5% understanding
1100 characters → 90% understanding 2600 characters → 98.7% understanding
1200 characters → 91% understanding 2700 characters → 98.9% understanding
1300 characters → 92% understanding 2800 characters → 99.0% understanding
1400 characters → 93% understanding 2900 characters → 99.1% understanding
1500 characters → 94% understanding 3000 characters → 99.2% understanding


Another thing that I want to know, but can’t seem to find, is how many individual characters are in the Bible? I know there are plenty of characters that aren’t in everyday use so they might not be in a list of the 3,00 most common characters, but I wonder how many? If you know that answer to that question, please let me know!

6 thoughts on “How many Chinese characters do you need to know?

  1. Jacques

    That is an interesting question.

    According to one website, the Old Testament has over 8,674 unique Hebrew words and the New Testament has over 5,624 unique Greek words. The King James Version turned that into 12,143 unique English words.

    I don’t imagine that the Chinese Union Version can top the KJV’s 12,143 unique word count, but if there are over 5,624 unique Greek words in the New Testament, I imagine the the Chinese translation has a rough equivalent.

    Then again, the majority of the Chinese translation is made up of the most commonly occurring words. It is those not so common words that cause the trouble.

    1. Mark (China Ramblings!) Post author

      Thanks for those stats Jacques. What I am really wanting to know is how many “individual characters” are used, therefore knowing how many one needs to know to read the Bible. In English we only have 26 “characters” and one can read the Bible. You might not know all the word meanings, but you can make read.

      So if a Chinese character is repeated it still would only count as “one” no matter how many times it is used or paired with another character to form another world. For example: 从, 从前 and 顺从 = a character count of “three individual characters” even though there are five (从 being used three times). That is the number I am really looking for.

      Got any ideas?

  2. Jacques

    On that note, as I have been learning to read and write Chinese, I have noticed that knowing all of the characters doesn’t necessarily mean knowing all of the words. I have often been able to read all of the characters in a sentence yet still have no idea what the sentence means. As you said, pair two different characters together and you get a knew word.

    For example, sometime ago I learned the characters 安 (peace) and 全 (all). But when I first saw the word 安全, I couldn’t figure out what it meant (safety).

    Anyway, it is a difficult language this Chinese is.

    加油!Keep it up!

    1. Mark (China Ramblings!) Post author

      Yea, agree with that. Just because you know the two characters’ meaning individually, it doesn’t always give you a clue to their combined meaning.

      I am just wanting to know how many individual characters one needs to learn to read the Bible. I guess 3-5,000 individual characters. If you knew all the characters individual meaning and pronunciation, you could read, and even if you don’t know all the meanings. But if you don’t know a character’s pronunciation, you just stare at it :)

      Also, the Bible is most likely the book I will read the most times in Chinese, so knowing what I am up against would be helpful!


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