The Chinese writing system is known for having thousands of individual letters, a fact that is often used to illustrate how difficult the Chinese language would be to master if one had to learn all those letters.
It's almost impossible to count all the Chinese "letters" that exist in the Chinese "alphabet". But estimates could easily go over 135,000 unique characters. That being said, you'll only need around 3500 characters to read a newspaper, and the knowledge of 2600 Chinese "letters" is enough to pass a Chinese language test.
Chinese Letters Aren't Letters, But "Word-Parts" or "Morphemes"
All this talk about letters is only a half-truth, though... In reality, the Chinese characters aren't letters, but rather symbols that each represent a morpheme of a word.
What's A Morpheme?
What's a morpheme? Let's take the word "unattractive" as an example. In English, this would consist of three morphemes; "un", "attract" and "ive". Each can be used separately to form another word, but sometimes it can function as an independent word in itself, life it's the case with "attract".
Curiously, "attract" is actually written with two morphemes: 吸, meaning "suck" and 引 meaning "lead". So to attract, in Chinese, is to "suck-lead". It sort of makes sense, doesn't it?
Is It Difficult To Learn All Chinese Characters?
Now imagine having a symbol for each morpheme in the English language. There'd be thousands.
Would they be difficult to learn? Well.. I don't really think so.
Learning words in a language that uses the Latin Alphabet means learning a combination of letters for each morpheme. For Chinese, you just have to learn a drawing instead. (But I digress; To read more about the difficulty of Chinese, read my article on the subject).
How Many Chinese Characters Exist In Total?
But how many characters or "morphemes" exist in Chinese? The 2004 version of the Yitizi Zidian dictionary counts 106,230 characters! And this dictionary doesn't take the about 30.000 historical characters used by the Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese for writing their own languages into account.
In reality, however, the total number of Chinese characters is hard to count, because new ones are constantly added and old ones aren't necessarily used anymore.
Other sources say that there are about 50,000 Hanzi characters in the Chinese script (or 50,000 letters in the Chinese alphabet, if you will). While I'm certain that there are more, I think that you'd be hard-pressed to find a contemporary text that uses any characters other than those 50,000.
How Many Chinese Characters Do I Need To Read A Chinese Newspaper?
So to make things clear: You don't need to learn 106,000 characters or even 50,000 to become functional in Chinese. A much smaller number of characters are actually used in everyday life.
Studies have found that you'll be able to read most Chinese newspapers fluently with around 3500 characters. And to pass the official Chinese language test (called HSK) at its highest level, you need to master just 2600 characters. So at 2600 characters, you'll be considered fluent in Chinese!
So while it can seem intimidating to throw big numbers around like "106,000", it isn't really a useful number for someone who is learning Chinese. In reality, you need much less.
So Doesn't Chinese Have An Alphabet? Enter: Pinyin
So I've been telling you that there doesn't exist a Chinese alphabet and that the Hanzi characters constitute a morpheme-based writing system... And so on!
Actually, there does exist a Chinese alphabet. It's called Pinyin. Pinyin is a modified version of the Latin alphabet (that we use for writing English).
Pinyin has a total of 26 letters and uses various diacritics (or symbols added on top of the letter) to indicate the tones used.
While Pinyin is easy to learn and use, it's mostly something that you'll rely on as a learner of Chinese. The reason? The Chinese don't use it for writing in real life.
For a quick introduction and walk-through of the Pinyin alphabet, watch the excellent video below.