Glyphs is probably not the right term. I'll try to explain what I mean.

I often read things like: "Chinese is much harder than English: there are 50,000 characters but only 26 letters". This is not really a valid comparison because around 45,000 of those characters are archaic, variants, or really unusual characters that you probably will never encounter. But still, that leaves maybe 5000 or so characters that you need to learn vs. 26.

Let's say 2000 characters is enough for daily life, 2000 characters vs. 26 letters still seems overwhelming.

In fact it's not necessary to 2000 unique glyphs. A Chinese person doesn't need to memorise 选 stroke by stroke, it's enough to know 走之旁 and 先 to put them together to make 选. Just as in English you can spell the word Cup using 3 unique component glyphs C, U and P.

To have an apples-with-apples comparison of the effort in becoming literate in Chinese vs. English, you would need to compare the number of unique component glyphs in Chinese with the 26 alphabetic characters. That number would certainly be higher, but I'm thinking it would be low hundreds rather than thousands. You would also need to consider that a lot of English spelling works at the level of word roots and affixes, and you have things such as the -ight in light and right, which more or less need to be learned as a unit. At school I did a lot of 死记硬背 learning to read, and I'm not sure that it was actually any less than if it had been Chinese I was learning.

So, my question is: how many unique components are needed to be able to be able to form all or most of the Chinese characters in use today? By unique components, I mean parts of characters that can't be further divided into simpler characters and can only be described in terms of strokes.

Also, what is the proper term to use?I'm assuming it's not 部首, as it would have to include phonetic and other components, but 部首 would be a subset.

  • You don't need any. Just remember a few major 部首 is enough
    – Tang Ho
    Feb 7 at 21:28
  • I understand where the OP is coming from, and I think the idea of components (汉字部件) is quite a good one, and one that modern (post-2020) Chinese language pedagogy (both L1 and L2) is moving towards.
    – Michaelyus
    Feb 8 at 0:21
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    Comparing the number of Chinese characters and number of letters in the English alphabet makes no sense, as each Chinese character is meaningful while each English letter isn't. You need to compare the number of Chinese characters with the number of English words. Feb 8 at 1:52
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    @fat penguin that wouldn't be a direct comparison because although characters are meaningful in themselves they are normally components of 词. Comparing 词 to English words would be better. Feb 8 at 2:05
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    Major differences between English and Chinese are, in an alphabet based language you could more or less pronounce a new word encountered though the meaning is not apparent immediately. So, at least the pronouncing part is done without help leaving only the meaning to be found. In Chinese there are clues as to the probable pronunciation of a character, but many others have none. So, in Chinese there is an extra step to learning, pronunciation and meaning, not to mention compound words, two or more characters joined together giving rise to new meanings quite alien to the original components. Feb 8 at 2:11

2 Answers 2


Well, average literate adult knows approximately 8-10,000 characters, many of them in that caregory of rarely used//outdated from school studies of old texts etc.

Only counting high school education level is probably around 4-5,000 characters. You can easily get by in daily life with less than 3,000 no problem. Thats usually the level second language learners aim for.

Please understand that by the nature of this question you can't really give an exact answer, since literacy varies wildly simply by if someone has a reading related career or hobby etc. But hope it helps you get a basic idea. Also not that for most purposes, measuring character knowledge isn't nearly as valuable as knowing actual vocabulary. Most adults are gonna know around 10-30,000 vocabulary, just like in english or probably any other language (^ν^)

  • If you are starting to learn Chinese as a foreigner, you probably start with 你好. You have to learn those 2 characters stroke by stroke. Then you learn 他 which is 人 and 也. But by now you know enough to learn 她 "for free" because you already know 女 and 也. So you have learned 3 characters by memorisation and a 4th just from knowing the other three characters. And it gets easier as you go, eventually all the characters you learn are built out of ones you already know. So how many characters/components do you actually need to memorise, to reach 5000 characters? My guess is several hundred. Feb 8 at 7:13
  • So the real point of my question is, how can I explain to someone who is intimidated by the idea of having to learn 5000 characters, that it's not really like that, it's more like learning words through spelling only there are more letters and they can go above, around or beside each other? Feb 8 at 7:15
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    @河南宝宝 I would explain it that the actual amount of characters needed doesn't really matter, just focus on learning real vocab and the characters come along for the ride. The number of words used in any language aren't inherently that different or strange, its all conveying mostly the same concepts overall. Characters themselves can seem intimidating, but that is only because they are brand new. Once you get used to them, they are no harder to remember than any english word. After that firm foundation is built its much easier (◐‿◑)
    – zagrycha
    Feb 8 at 7:25
  • Yep I would agree with all of the above. I just want to debunk the myth that Chinese is only possible if you have fantastic memorization ability! Feb 8 at 7:30
  • @河南宝宝 Yeah, I think these myths simply come from people who don't come to the realization that everything is hard at the bery beginning, because you are brand new at it! Have such myths disappear would definitely be good o(∩_∩)o
    – zagrycha
    Feb 8 at 21:49

214 radicals are required to use dictionary for learning.

Traditional Chinese groups all characters according to 214 radicals (simplified uses 189), which are organized based on number of strokes into a chart called the bushou(部首).

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Added after user comments:

Chinese characters by parts/components(部件)

"Sometimes when you are trying to find the meaning of a Chinese character it is not possible to use the traditional method. Instead of listing characters by radical this index lists characters by component part. In many cases the radical is the component to look up but sometimes the radical is hard to recognize or locate within the character . If a character has multiple identifiable components it is listed under each of the component part. Take for example the character 狗 ‘dog’ it has the ‘dog’ radical 犭 ‘quan’ and so it is listed under this component, but it also has elements ‘mouth’ 口 and ‘wrap’ 勹 so it is also listed under these as well. For a beginner the ‘mouth’ is the clearest component to look up by rather than the ‘dog’ radical. Some characters are considered ‘atomic’ - they can not be split into simpler parts and so do not appear in this list, for example 五 ‘5’."

Also see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_character_components

  • 1
    Can you please explain how you would write 「年」, 「再」, or 「后」 using the 214 radicals?
    – dROOOze
    Feb 8 at 1:02
  • @dROOOze No, without proper input tools, I can't. But you may find the linked webpage useful. chinasage.info/chars/fch_nian_year.htm
    – r13
    Feb 8 at 1:58
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    Just an FYI, don't always rely on radicals to help you learn Chinese characters. Radicals are primarily ONLY used as dictionary headers, try to instead learn the common components and maybe some sound components that make up most of Chinese characters.
    – prismcool
    Feb 8 at 4:05
  • It sounds like 部件 might be the word I was looking for, thank you. Feb 8 at 7:23
  • According to the page above, there are 623 primitive components in the 7,785 characters in Chinese Character Information Dictionary. Feb 8 at 7:25

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