How many Chinese characters do you need to learn?

How many Chinese characters do students need to learn?

This is a dominate question among many students. A popular answer is that students need to learn 2000 Chinese characters to read Chinese newspapers. This is not true. Learning 2000 characters does not guarantee that students are able to read Chinese newspapers.

Have said that, I do have a definite answer for beginner students who just start learning reading and writing Chinese. The number is 320 Chinese characters. It must be made clear that this definite number of characters is not the most crucial aspect of their learning.

The right question

In his preface to Beginning Chinese Reader, John DeFrancis wrote that the numbers game played by asking the question “How many characters do you know?” is generally amateurish and ignores the fact that the simple question is actually quite complex. Questions which should be asked but are often neglected are “How many combinations of characters do you know?” and “How much actual reading have you done?”

He said that being exposed to a character in a textbook is not really “knowing” that character. “Knowing” a character means to understand the way in which a character enters into combinations, performs varied functions in a sentence, or has acquired particular cultural connotations. 

That is what we need in learning a Chinese character, to gain an extended understanding, to acquire an adequate knowledge of the richness of usages and meanings attached to individual characters. 

At MSL Master, we can’t agree more. What DeFrancis said points out the limitation of a single Chinese character that, when standing alone, does not convey a great deal of information. 

The statistics

After becoming fully aware of the limitations and potentials of individual Chinese characters, John DeFrancis wrote his Chinese Reader series based on the studies of Chinese character occurrence, which is the best way to overcome one of the most difficult obstacles for non-Chinese speakers to learn Chinese, thousands of Chinese characters. 

Following what DeFrancis did before, I also wrote a series of Chinese Reading and Writing textbooks. I consider my books have made some improvements in certain areas.

All DeFrancis’ books are as thick as a brick and look daunting and intimidating. That’s one area for improvement.

DeFrancis used the same method to teach Chinese characters. However, after passing a threshold, learning characters according to occurring frequency becomes increasingly inefficient. The top 500 characters count for 72.1% - 79.2% of the characters occurring, while the next 500 characters for only 11.9% - 14.1%. The way of presenting the first 500 characters ought to be different from the way presenting the second 500. That’s another area to be improved. 

Therefore, I used a slightly different strategy in my Chinese Reading and Writing books.

320 Chinese characters in six books

The complete Chinese Reading and Writing series introduces 320 Chinese characters, which were carefully picked out according to them being the most frequently used Chinese characters, as well as their places in Mandarin Express series. 

These 320 characters are split into six books, which are as thin as pamphlets. Comparing to the Chinese Reader series by John DeFrancis, they are much easier for students to manage and to move on. 

The first book of the series, Chinese Reading and Writing 1, teaches 70 Chinese characters. And the following five books, Chinese Reading and Writing 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, each teaches 50 Chinese characters.

On completing the Chinese Reading and Writing series, students will have achieved a sizeable mass of Chinese characters which account for more than 50-60% of occurring frequency.

After this initial 320 characters, students go to Mandarin Express Pre-Intermediate books to carry on their study, expanding their vocabulary rapidly. 

An extended understanding of Chinese characters

The most important features of DeFrancis’ books have remained in the Chinese Reading and Writing series as well. That is that learning Chinese reading and writing goes beyond learning a list of characters. The real focus is on learning combinations and on reading Chinese texts.

Therefore, each Chinese Reading and Writing book uses a structure very simple and powerful. Each lesson presents around 10 characters, followed by words, sentences, conversations, and stories. 

Great effort was taken to make sure that the content is interesting and engaging. Attention is paid to: (1) all the illustrations are strictly confined to the characters already presented; (2) illustrations are not above students’ level.

With each book completed, students gain a deeper understanding on Chinese language, and develop necessary skills in reading and writing Chinese text.

Have fun with 320 Chinese characters

Starting in 2021, a Chinese Writing Contest is organised every year. Chinese language learners worldwide are invited to participate. The character requirement of this contest is these 320 characters. 

Great works have been created. Wonderful feedbacks from students and teachers have been received. 

This contest aims to shift the focus of learning Chinese from “learning more Chinese characters” to “reading more and writing more”, which is more fun and more enjoyable than counting the number of characters one has accumulated. 


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April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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