Chinese Characters and Words

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Most Frequent Chinese Characters

How many Chinese characters do you have to learn in order to read a Chinese newspaper?

An appropriate answer will be around 2,500 Chinese characters. Coverage rate of 1,000 most frequent Chinese characters on a general text is around 85%. By knowing 1,000 Chinese characters, you can recognize about 85% of all characters on a general publication like Chinese newspaper.

Following are the coverage rates of the most frequently used Chinese characters:
# of Character : Coverage rate
100 : 38%
500 : 72%
1000 : 86%
2000 : 95%
2500 : 97%
3000 : 98%

I am getting these coverage rates from MTSU Chinese Computing (Jun Da), and more from and

Now suppose you know 1,000 Chinese characters, does that mean you can read 86% of the text on a newspaper?

You may have noticed the word "recognize" instead of "understand" I used in second paragraph, knowing 1,000 Chinese characters does not mean you can read and understand as much.

This happens for various reasons:

  1. A Chinese character have multiple meanings, people infer its appropriate meaning from the context.

    Example :
    巧 (qiao3) : opportunely; coincidentally; as it happens; skillful; timely.
    巧合 (qiao3 he2) : coincidence; 巧妙 (qiao3 miao4) : ingenious; clever

  2. Homograph disambiguation (多音字) : There are a few hundred Chinese characters that have multiple pronunciations with different meanings.
    Example :
    背 (bei1) : carry; 背 (bei4) : the back of the body
    都 (dou1) : all; 都 : (du1) : capital, metropolis

  3. Most of Loan words in Chinese are transliterations from other languages.
    Example :
    You may know characters 美 (mei3): beautiful and 国 = 國 (guo2) : country, unless you have seen or learned the word "美国" before, you may not know it is a transliteration from "America" - The United States.

  4. Cultural words : words which are unique to Chinese culture.
    Example :
    气功 (qi4 gong1), 做月子 (zuo4 yue4 zi), 江湖 (jiang1 hu2)

  5. Some words are originated from 俚语 (li3 yu3) : slang; 成语(cheng2 yu3) : set phrase, Poetry, or other ancient Chinese literature
    Example :
    守株待兔 (shou3 zhu1 dai4 tu4)
    肉 包 子 打 狗, 有 去 无 回. (rou4 bao1 zi da3 gou3, you3 qu4 wu2 hui2)

Think that's too much for you?
Fortunately Chinese characters are like prefixes and roots in English language.

For example, 电 (dian4) means "electricity",
and from 电 we can learn following words too.

電冰箱电冰箱dian4 bing1 xiangrefrigerator
電池电池dian4 chi2battery
電燈泡电灯泡dian4 deng1 pao1bulb
電風扇电风扇dian4 feng1 shan4electric fan
電話电话dian4 hua4telephone; phone call
電腦电脑dian4 nao3computer
電視电视dian4 shi4television; TV

Feel more confident on learning Chinese?

On next post, I will be compiling a list of loan words in Chinese.
I am sure you will be interested to know these familiar words in Chinese. :-)


  • I am looking for the respective characters/'words' that mean - envy (as in jealous) and 'I Love' - can you help please

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