How Many Chinese Characters Do I Really Need to Learn?

Depending on what sources you look at, there are 50,000 to 100,000 Chinese characters that exist in the Chinese language.  For someone learning Chinese, learning that many characters seem virtually impossible.

Fortunately, most of these characters are seldom used.  The Ministry of Education of China compiled the 现代汉语通用字表 (List of Commonly Used Characters in Modern Chinese) which lists 7,000 of the most common Chinese characters.  But learning 7,000 characters is still a huge task.

Do we really need to learn 7,000 characters?
Whether you pick up a newspaper, magazine, novel, you will be able to recognize a certain percentage of the text with even a limited knowledge of characters.  You don’t have to slavishly study 50,000 characters, let alone master 7,000 characters.  The key is to focus on the most frequent characters first.

What if I know 500, 1000, 2000 characters?
There are a few studies that have looked at character frequency and word frequency across vast amounts of text (Huang, Da, Purohit).

The result is as follows.  If you know 500 characters, you will be able to read roughly 79% of any given text.  If you know 1,000 characters, you will be able to read roughly 91% of any given text. And by 3,000 characters, you will be able to read over 99% of any given text.  So it seems there is no need to study all 7,000 character for everyday life.

 Characters Huang Da Purohit Average
250 64.4% 57.1% 68.0% 63.2%
500 79.2% 72.1% 87% 79.4%
1,000 91.1% 86.2% 96.2% 91.2%
1,500 95.7% 92.4% 99.0% 95.7%
2,000 97.9% 95.6% 99.6% 97.7%
3,000 99.4% 98.3% 99.9% 99.2%


Is that the Whole Story?
Unfortunately, this is not the whole story.  When studying Chinese, you quickly realize that focusing solely on characters is insufficient, since words made from a combination of characters may take on new meaning.  For example:

大 = big
方 = square; direction; place

but together 大方 = generous

天 = sky
真 = real, true

but together 天真 = naive, innocent

What learners really need to pay attention to is learning words.  According to Purohit, the massive dataset he analyzed contained 3,848 characters, but these characters combined in various ways to make 26,767 words.  Further, his analysis shows what percentage of any given text we can read based on your vocabulary size.  For example, if you know 1,319 words, you would be able to read 80% of any given text.  If you know 2,801 words, you would be able to read 90% of any given text.

Words Percentage
230 50.0%
1,319 80.0%
2,801 90.0%
5,000 95.1%
12054 99.0%
21875 99.9%


How Many Characters Do I Know Already?
There are a few online character recognition quizzes that can give an estimate, but it is a rough estimate:
Clavis Sinica Chinese Character Test
How many Chinese characters do you know?

If you have studied a specific textbook or prepared for the HSK, this can also give you a rough idea.  For example, after completing New Practical Chinese Reader 1 (NPCR 1) you will have learned 429 characters and 456 words.

Characters Words
NPCR 1 429 456
NPCR 2 807 1,059
NPCR 3 1,143 1,660
NPCR 4 1,423 2,337

Or after learning HSK vocabulary

Characters Words
HSK 1 174 150
HSK 2 300 347
HSK 3 617 600
HSK 4 1,064 1,200
HSK 5 1,685 2,500
HSK 6 2,663 5,000

What is the best way to study these characters and words?
The most efficient way to study is to use apps or software that employ Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS).  Apps like Skritter, Pleco’s flash card, or Anki.

When I first started studying Chinese, I committed practicing Chinese characters and words for 30 minutes / day on Skritter.  Over the span of my first year, with the help of SRS, I learned over 2000 characters and 4000 words.