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I heard classical Chinese had a limited amount of vocabularies compared to modern Chinese. How many words one has to learn in order to acquire average reading abilities, disregarding the grammar?

  • Not many, several hundreds I guess, if the "average" refers to the quantity that Chinese middle/high school students should learn. However even for native speakers, classical Chinese is difficult because the functional words have too many meanings. It would be a good start to read the novels after Ming Dynasty -- they are closer to modern Chinese , therefore easy to follow. – Stan Oct 26 '14 at 17:53
  • The problem in learning to read Classical Chinese is much less acquiring the character-vocabulary than it is learning the grammar and learning to gauge the meaning of very terse sentences. – Colin McLarty Oct 27 '14 at 21:31
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According to 二十五史的字数是多少?, most of the classics contain five to six thousand unique characters. 《辽史》(Liao history) contains as few as 4071; 《清史》(Qing history) contains as many as 8080.

《史记》93 BC contains 5122 unique characters;

《汉书》83 AD, 5833 unique characters;

《新唐书》1060 AD, 6346字;

《清史》1927 AD, 8080字.

According to this site, the first dictionary 《说文解字》which was finished in 121 AD contains 9353 characters; another one which was created in 1716 AD contains 47035 characters.

Han dynasty's《说文解字》 finished in 121 AD, contains 9353;

Song dynasty's《集韵》(1034AD) contains 53525;

Qing dynasty's《康熙字典》(1716 AD) contains 47035;

《中华字海》published in 1994 AD contains 85000.

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