How many Chinese characters do you need to learn?

For beginner students who just start learning reading and writing Chinese, we do have an answer for this question, that they start with learning 320 Chinese characters. However, it should be made clear that this 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. Moreover, what DeFrancis said also 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. Certain areas are improved. The first one is that all DeFrancis’ books are as thick as a brick and look daunting and intimidating. Also, 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%. Yet students have to spend considerably longer time and more energy to study the 2nd 500 characters.

Therefore, I developed 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 a pamphlet. 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 60% of occurring frequency.

An extended understanding of Chinese characters

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. 

On completing the whole series of Chinese Reading and Writing, students will be at a new level, able to continue their study with Mandarin Express Pre-Intermediate Level A, a character based Chinese textbook.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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