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I am mainly just curious as to the answer. And it would be interesting to hear if it is different for simplified and traditional.

I know there are 80,000+ characters and most native speakers will know about 4000 to 6000.

So, I don't know if this has been specifically looked into. Is there a record holder as to knowing the most number of characters? Or are there figures for the experts in Chinese--how many do they know.

I tried to google the question but i kept getting the average number that people know.

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  • I guess the characters research is a pure academic thing, as there are some ancient poetry competitions on tv but not a character competition so far. – Shaw Apr 17 at 9:37
  • Quote:- "...but not a character competition so far" I doubt such a competition is held for any language, if you discount "Spelling Bee" competitions? Such "word count" competitions would be technically complicated as, much like IQ Tests, you need to co-relate factors such as academic achievements, age, socio-economic backgrounds, etc, for it to be a fair competition, or assessment, as opposed to a random census type survey to find, on a one-off basis, a single person who is nearest to knowing the 80,000+ known characters. – Wayne Cheah Apr 18 at 4:31
  • Also, what constitutes "knowing a character"? Mere recognition? Knowing how to write it? Knowing its pronunciation? Meaning? Usage? Knowing how it differs from other similar characters? Able to use it in a sentence correctly? There are different degrees of knowing. And the more important point: who decides how many characters another person knows? Wouldn't this person (the judge) need to "know" all of the characters? – monalisa Apr 18 at 5:44
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    @monalisa has a good point. Perhaps we could rephrase the question. Roughly how many characters do experts know? (where by "know" we mean "are familiar with usage, pronunciation(s), can use it correctly in most of its meanings, can write it from memory…) IIRC I read somewhere that even highly literate people commonly forget how to write everyday characters like 嚏 (打喷嚏). – goPlayerJuggler Apr 18 at 9:44
  • The 2015中国汉字听写大会 is available on YouTube; Japanese kanji tests are a regular feature of quiz shows; and even Korean hanja tests feature regularly in variety shows. – Michaelyus Apr 20 at 15:48
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I do not think a meaningful answer can be had for the following reasons:

First of all, one needs to define the word "know". What exactly do you mean by "knowing a Chinese character"? If I can recognize and sound out the character when I read, but I have never used it myself, do I know it? I suppose this would be a very passive kind of knowing. If another person knows how to write it from memory, can pronounce it and use it in a sentence, then s/he certainly knows the character better than I do. If a third person not only can do everything the second person does, but also knows the etymology, and what other characters it goes with to form words. Would all three be classified as "knowing" the character? If the answer is "yes", then it does not seem fair to the third person because clearly, s/he has a much deeper knowledge than I have. In short, there are different degrees of knowing. Before any such competition, a clear definition is needed.

Secondly, in this "competition", are you relying on people self-reporting on how many characters they know, (provided we can arrive at a clear definition of "know" in the first place)? Or is there a certain way to objectively judge and compare different people's knowledge? If it is self-reporting you rely on, then much more will come into play than just the number of characters a person knows. A person who is full of self confidence may genuinely believe and report on a greater number of characters than they actually know. In contrast, a knowledgeable yet self-doubting person may do just the opposite. And that's not even counting the people who exaggerate to impress.

Also, how often have you thought you knew something, only to discover that you don't really know it? In the area of Chinese characters, many people mispronounce, misunderstand, or misuse a character without even realizing it. In view of this, self- reporting as a basis of comparison is essentially useless.

If self-reporting does not work, then there needs to be some kind of judge or judging panel to decide how many characters a person knows. Who would qualify to be in this panel? Wouldn't this person need to know pretty much all the characters there are, since they need to decide if another person "knows" a certain character?

I think there is a reason why when you try to google, you keep getting the average number that people know.

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  • I probably would go to the more traditional, proven route - compare the number of words covered by the prestigious dictionaries. That's the known Chinese words in existence but not necessarily know by most living people :) – r13 Apr 20 at 0:27
  • I guess no one has devised any test yet? Like perhaps hanzitest.herokuapp.com – user55570 Apr 20 at 1:45
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    There are many tests, but that's not what the question is about. – Olle Linge Apr 20 at 7:13
  • Well, a test that is appropriate could determine how good one's knowledge is. – user55570 Apr 21 at 22:27
  • Your question is about a record holder, which, by definition, requires quantifying comparing different people's knowledge. You were not asking about tests that can determine how good a person can read a language. – monalisa Apr 21 at 23:51

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