The Chinese writing system is made up of a large number of symbols
(more commonly called characters)
that represent different concepts. There is no alphabet, in other
words, the symbols, or characters, are not used for their phonetic
The characters that are used today are, at least in terms of their overall structure,
more or less similar to the ones
used 3,500 years ago. Their shape has undergone some changes but their
basic composition and meaning remained pretty much the same. One of the
greatest changes happened sometime in the third century BC when the
state of Qin has managed to conquer the last autonomous state in
China and unify the country under its rule. In 221 BC, the Qin king
has declared himself the First Emperor of Qin. Among the many
things that were standardized in the united China at this time was writing.
This was the last major systematic modification of Chinese
writing until the simplification carried out by the Communist
regime in the 1940ís and 1950ís.
So how many Chinese symbols are there in total?
The number of different symbols, compared to writing systems based
on an alphabet is incredibly high. Even smaller dictionaries contain
as many as 6,000 different characters.
The Kangxi dictionary published in 1710 contains some 47,000 characters.
The Hanyu dacidian that came out recently in mainland China lists over 60,000 characters.
Of course, nobody can remember such a large number of symbols. Actually, there
is no need to do that. An average Chinese person might be able to read
about 4-5,000 characters which is sufficient to understand almost anything
written in Chinese today. But just 3,000 characters constitutes over 90% of
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