900 Chinese characters to read a newspaper?

I really find it hard to believe.

The Chinese media is using fewer characters and to understand 90 percent of the content in publications you need only to know about 900 of the thousands of pictographs that make up the script, state media said on Tuesday.

The findings of a survey conducted by the education ministry and language commission were based on 900 million characters used in more than 8.9 million files chosen from newspapers, magazines, the Internet and television, the Xinhua news agency said.

It did not give an explanation for the survey results.

This is an odd story. I tried to search for other stories about it on Google News, but all my searches led to blank pages, a sure sign the China firewall was doing its damndest to promote national ignorance. Technorati, too, seems to be blocked. Maddening.

The Discussion: 20 Comments

Google news gives me plenty results (and not blank pages).

And Technorati is fine.

May 24, 2006 @ 3:36 am | Comment

900 characters is very few. I remember during my Chinese exams in Singapore, you needed to know between 2000-3000 characters to get a good mark.

May 24, 2006 @ 5:21 am | Comment

We had to learn about 1000 characters for our diploma and I can’t read a newspaper. On a good day I can understand 70% and guess the rest. The problem is that newspapers use a lot of “shorthand” and jargon, which takes a lot of getting used to. You might recognise the character for “Yi” but not realise it is shorthand for Indonesia.

May 24, 2006 @ 5:47 am | Comment

Don’t confuse words with characters. If you know 900 characters, it doesn’t mean you know that thousand of words that they can combine to mean.

I wonder how many characters you need to know to understand 100% of a newspaper.

May 24, 2006 @ 6:29 am | Comment

I don’t think it’s anything new. The “900 characters to read a newspaper” stuff is a pretty standard lecture line from most Stateside Chinese language classes and books.

May 24, 2006 @ 6:29 am | Comment

Don’t confuse words with characters. If you know 900 characters, it doesn’t mean you know the thousands of words that they can combine to mean. Big difference.

I wonder how many characters you need to know to understand 100% of a newspaper.

May 24, 2006 @ 6:30 am | Comment

I donot how many Chinese characters do I konw…

May 24, 2006 @ 7:04 am | Comment

So they’re aiming to write at a 12-year-old level, like most American newspapers (that’s not a comment, just a statement of fact).

Makes sense, and I don’t see it as news.

May 24, 2006 @ 7:53 am | Comment

I always thought it interesting that most novels read in America are classified into grade levels, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything above “9th grade level”. Is there anybody that’s read anything “PhD in his mid forties going back for a post-doctorate degree level”? I think it’s pretty common that the American public just doesn’t read the way we used to.

May 24, 2006 @ 8:11 pm | Comment

My Chinese friends here all laughed at this story. I would say at least 5,000 characters are needed to o read a Chinese newspaper, based on earlier threads on this blog.

Laowai, the firewall is tempermental as always; now I can do the search, yesterday I couldn’t. No rhyme or reason.

May 24, 2006 @ 10:25 pm | Comment

I remember, after several years of study, going out and buying a Chinese nerspaper – probably 新京报 – and opening it to find that I could read all of it. Two thoughts went through my head in rapid succession:

1) “Wow, I’m reading a newspaper after years of study!”

2) “Wow, this was totally not worth it.”

The figure of [x] characters is more or less meaningless, since characters combine and recombine in often unfamiliar ways, meaning that just because you know that, e.g. zha means “piece, prick” and dui means “heap,” that doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to intuit that zhaduir means “to be lumped in together.”

May 24, 2006 @ 11:16 pm | Comment

Chinese newspapers can be pretty predictable. They could probably limit it to about fifty characters and it would say the same thing:
mei guo di guo zhu yi
ri ben di guo zhu yi
tai wan shi zhong guo bu ke fen li de yi bu fen.
you zhong guo te se de… (fill in the blank)

that’s about all you need to read the garbage newspapers here, i’d say

May 24, 2006 @ 11:39 pm | Comment

My dream is to read Mao’s Little Red Book in the original Chinese. The words of Chairman Mao will free my mind.

Well, 70 percent of my mind anyway. The other 30 percent of my mind will rationalise mass murder.

May 25, 2006 @ 1:55 am | Comment

as my suggestion, don’t read any Chinese newpapers except for seeking the weather information. For a typical Chinese newspaper, only thing for sure is the weather forcasting.

well, there are half million Chinese characters out there but 99% of them are dead words. Believe it or not, 500 is enough. that’s why I can read Chinese newspaper when I was 7 year old boy.

May 25, 2006 @ 2:52 am | Comment

Could be true…. if these “publications” they are referring to are targeting at children. I have a computer program that closely tracks how many characters I have learned. At the point where I knew around 1000 characters, trying to read a newspaper was a complete exercise in where’s-the-radical hide-and-go-seek futility. At around 3500 where I am now, I see an unfamiliar character every 3 to 4 newspaper articles I read.

May 26, 2006 @ 9:47 am | Comment

I believe that the 900 chars, combined into say 1200 – 1500 words is enough. BUT that really has to do more with the writer’s intention to simplify the writing to the masses.

May 26, 2006 @ 6:59 pm | Comment

Sorry Admiral, but knowledge of 1200 – 1500 words will get you absolutely nowhere unless the subject matter you are reading is confined to a topic that you have focused your studies on.

May 26, 2006 @ 11:12 pm | Comment

For a personality and a name such as Mr. Right, it is indeed a sad day. I would presume that Mr. Right is of Chinese origin. Sir, I do hope that with the exceptional level of intelligence for a remark such as ‘99% of them are dead words’ complements your understanding of the Chinese language.
For one to understand the language, is again, to embrace the basic fundamentals and grasping the basic foundation of the language. So I would again, asssume that there are 2 possibilities that occur while you were at the tender age of 7 years old. First, the standard and quality of Chinese education you received were mediocre at best and below par, i might add, or on a more personal level, meaning, your comprehension at that tender age of 7, was an amusing and sad albeit.
So Mr. Right, i would prefer a more pragmatic yet ideaslitic approach. 99% of us in here have the ability to read and absorb knowledge but only 1% of us utilize this knowledge and further implement them, without causing too much embarassment on to ourselves. Which one are you ?

ps, were you reading the comic section when you were 7 ? i hope not, newspapers contain much more information besides that.

May 27, 2006 @ 3:06 pm | Comment

Here’s a link to the Xinhua article (in Chinese):

May 28, 2006 @ 1:04 pm | Comment

That is all fine and dandy; but I want to know which 900 characters (so I can vector my learning).

Given the fog index of many North American newspapers, perhaps the same may be said of them (only in words; rather than characters).

May 31, 2006 @ 4:28 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.