Lesson 01 How Many Chinese Characters Are There? 汉字有多少个?

Lesson 01 How Many Chinese Characters Are There? 汉字有多少个?

This is a question which no one can answer clearly and accurately. It is said that an emperor of ancient China once asked one of his very erudite ministers how many characters he knew. The minister answered, “There are as many Chinese characters as there are hairs on the body of an ox. I only know enough to cover one leg.”

This is a question which no one can answer clearly and accurately. It is said that an emperor of ancient China once asked one of his very erudite ministers how many characters he knew. The minister answered, “There are as many Chinese characters as there are hairs on the body of an ox. I only know enough to cover one leg.”

Chinese characters are widely used throughout the Far East. Besides the Han Chinese themselves, some minority nationalities in China, plus people in Japan, Vietnam, Korea, and some other regions have also used them. It is nearly impossible to collect and count all the characters in their different forms which have ever appeared from ancient times to the present. While it is true that the number of Chinese characters is not infinite, accurate statistics would be very difficult to compile.

A relatively practical approach is to investigate the number of characters collected in dictionaries from each Chinese dynasty. Of course, no such dictionaries were compiled at the time of the oracle bone and bronze inscriptions. The 《甲骨文编》[Jia Gu Wen Bian] (Compilation of Oracle Bone Inscriptions),is comparatively comprehensive Modern day collection of oracle bone inscriptions, contains 4,672 characters. 《金文编》[Jin Wen Bian] (Compilation of Bronze Inscriptions) similarly contains 3,093 characters. We may say that these figures are incomplete, because from these two periods of history characters are still continuously being discovered, and of course after three thousand years, many of these older characters are probably lost forever.

Ever since 许慎[Xu Shen] compiled the 《说文解字》[Shuo Wen Jie Zi] in the Eastern Han Dynasty, we have had formal dictionaries. The following is a list of comprehensive Chinese character dictionaries with their years of publication and the number of characters contained:

Dictionary Name

Publication Year

Characters Number

Shuo Wen Jie Zi


(ca.) 100 A.D.


Zi Lin


4th A.D.


Yu Pian


543 A.D.


Guang Yim


1008 A.D.


Lei Pian


1039 A.D.


Ji Yun


1067 A.D.


Zi Hui


1615 A.D.


Zheng Zi Tong


1670 A.D.


Kangxi Zidian


1716 A.D.


Zhonghua Da Zidian


1915 A.D.


Da Han-He Cidian


1959 A.D.


Zhongwen Da Cidian


1968 A.D.


Hanyu Da Zidian


1986 A.D.


Chunghwa Zihai


1994 A.D.


From the above list, we may see that the quantity of Chinese characters collected in dictionaries has increased over time. It had reached nearly 50,000 by the time of the 《康熙字典》[Kangxi Zidian], and is now close to 90,000 with the recently published 《中华字海》[Chunghwa Zihai]. Even so, we still from time to time come across some characters used for colloquial expressions, dialects, or in the names of places or people which are rarely used characters and are not found in dictionaries. Taking this into account, we may make an approximate guess that the total number of ancient and present-day characters altogether is around 100,000 or so.

But why are there so many Chinese characters? The primary reasons are discussed below:

(1) The large number of Chinese characters is determined by the nature of the language they represent. Characters are written signs for recording language. The type of elements which the characters record influences their number. For instance,


zǐ yuē: xué ér shí xí zhī, bú yì yuè hū?

Confucius said: Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application?

This sentence consists of eleven characters in ancient Chinese, which represent eleven words. Things have changed a lot in the case of modern Chinese. Nowadays the Chinese characters mostly represent the morphemes of the language. For example, in modern Chinese we usually say 学习[xuéxí](study),复习[fùxí](review),练习[liànxí](practice), etc. instead of using the single form习[xi] to express all of those concepts. because the characters represent all the morphemes and words in the language, their number is inevitably going to be extremely large. Alphabetic writing systems, on the other hand, have as their basic elements symbols which represent the basic sound units, or phonemes, of the morphemes and words of language, so that only a few dozen phonetic symbols, often in the form of “letters”, are sufficient.

(2) The large number of characters is also a result of the method of coinage of the Chinese writing system. The character-making method (造字法) in Chinese is not mono-principled, but rather multi-principled. The same word is often represented by different characters formulated on the basis of different character-making principles. Even the same character-making principle has given rise to differing character variants for the same word. For example, the character 牢[láo] in Mandarin, which means “jail”, historically has three variant forms, all formed on the basis of the associative principle of character formation: (1) an ox in a cowshed; (2) a sheep in a sheep pen, and (3) a horse in a stable. It is difficult to argue that one basis is inherently better than another. When the picto-phonetic principle began to be applied, the phenomenon of characters for the same word having variant forms became quite common.

It is true that it can make just as much sense to represent the same word by one method of coinage or component as another. For example, the word for “cat” has been represented both by the character 猫[māo] with the semantic “animal” radical, and by the character 貓[māo] with another “animal” radical; “gun” both with a “wood” radical 槍[qiāng], and a “metal” radical 鎗[qiāng]; “cannon” both with a “fire” radical 炮[pào] and a “stone” radical 砲[pào]; “lips” are just as much related to the “mouth” radical 唇[chún], as they are to the “flesh” radical 脣[chún]. Similarly, for a given word, one phonetic symbol may represent the pronunciation of the word, one phonetic symbol may represent the pronunciation of the word just as well as another; thus the word 菇[gū] meaning “mushroom” may have its pronunciation equally well represented by the character or the character and the word [chuí] meaning “hammer” has been represented both by 锤 and 鎚. As noted above, the number of Chinese characters is already quite large due to the fact that they represent both words and morphemes. They become even more numerous when we have such cases of the same word being represented by different character forms. In ancient time this was referred to as 《重文》[chong-wen] (alternate forms). The 9,353 characters in 《说文解字》[Shuo Wen Jie Zi] dictionary excludes an additional 1,163 such alternate forms also contained in the dictionary. In the case of the great 《康熙字典》[Kangxi Zidian], which contains 47,035 characters, there are more than 20,000 such alternate character forms.

(3) The vast numbers of Chinese characters also stem from their continuous accumulation over the ages. In fact, a great number of characters became “dead characters” 死字[sǐ zì] long ago simply by virtue of the great changes in the language over the centuries. Yet many of these characters have continued to remain in these wordbooks forever.

For instance, the 《康熙字典》[Kangxi Zidian] contains 481 characters composed with the “horse” radical, among which the majority are “dead characters” :

?: an one year old horse

駣: a three to four years old horse

騋: a horse over seven hands tall

騵:a horse with a white belly

驈:a horse with white legs

駺:a horse with a white tail

?:an eight years old horse

駜:a stout horse

駥:a horse over eight hands tall

?:a horse with a white forehead

騱:a horse with completely white forefeet

駩:a white horse with dark lips

騚:a horse with four white hoofs

骃:a horse with mixed black and white hair

騢:a horse with mixed red and white hair

駽:an indigo horse

骍:a red and yellow horse

騩:a light black horse

驎:a horse with dark lips

驒:an indigo horse with black spots

駹:a horse with black hair and a white forehead

駓:a horse with mixed yellow and white hair

驖:a blood black horse

騟:a violet horse

䯄:a yellow horse with dark lips

騽:a horse with a yellow mane

駠:a red horse with a black mane

In contrast, we can see that there are only 143 characters employing the “horse” radical in the twentieth century dictionary 《辞海》[Ci Hai] (Sea of Words), and fewer than 80 such in the contemporary 《现代汉语词典》[Xiandai Hanyu Cidian] (Dictionary of modern Chinese Words) and the 《新华字典》[Xinhua Zidian] (Xinhui Dictionary), from which we may conclude that the majority of the 47,035 characters in 《康熙字典》[Kangxi Zidian] are now dead ones.

(4) Special characters for words in dialects, colloquialisms, proper names of people and places, as well as many special words used for scientific and technological terminology all add to the number of Chinese characters. For example, 武则天[Wu Zetian], a  well-known empress of the Tang Dynasty, herself coined nineteen Chinese characters, including the character 曌[zhào], indicating that the sun and moon are shining in the heavens, which she used as her own name. Modern chemists have also coined quite a few new characters for the newly discovered Chemical elements, such as 铜[tóng] for actinium, 镅[méi] for americium, 镧[lán] for lanthanum, etc.

The approximate figure of 100,000 characters mentioned earlier is simply the aggregate of all the characters which have ever appeared from past to present. Such a figure is not very meaningful in terms of its practical value. First, the alternate forms should be excluded from calculation, as they are merely variant ways of writing the same characters. Second, the large number of “dead” characters should also be excluded as those characters have become useless now. If these two types of characters are excluded, then the remainder of Chinese characters totals only between ten and twenty thousand. For example, the contemporary dictionary 辞海[Ci Hai] contains 14,872 characters, which still includes a number of variant forms and dead characters. Thus we may say that the number of Chinese characters of practical value today is between ten and twenty thousand.

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