Chinese characters are logograms, or written characters that represent full words or even phrases, where one may have various different meanings, and depending on the meaning – the same character corresponds to different pronunciations.
Chinese characters constitute the oldest writing system in the world used continuously over time and there is a legendary origin attributed to the creation of the first Chinese characters. According to the story, Cangjie, who had four eyes and was an official under the government of the mythic Yellow Emperor – inspired by the sky, and the animals and natural landscapes – invented the first set of Chinese characters. And on the day, that happened, circa 2650 BC, people heard ghosts howling and saw crops falling from the sky.
Linguist researches have certain arguments against this colourful myth, mainly, the latest discovery of an ancient inscriptions dating back around 5,000 years that some of them believe could represent the earliest known record of Chinese characters to replace the famous Oracle Bones dating back to the late Shang dynasty circa 1200-1050 BC and representing inscriptions carved onto turtle shells and animal bones and used for divination and communication with royal ancestral spirits.
What is known for sure is that with the spread of Chinese Buddhism over East Asia, the Literary Chinese became the medium of scholars and government and Chinese culture and writing were adopted by Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and other regions over an extensive period of time.
In Chinese language, the logogram characters are called Hànzì, meaning ‘Han characters,’ and naturally taking its name after the Golden Age of the Han dynasty, first recorded in use in English in the Richard Brookes translation from 1736 of The general history of China, originally written in French. Whereas, radical, as the name of a Chinese character used to form part of another character having the same or a similar sound, was first recorded in use 3 years earlier in the London Magazine: “Among the great Number of Characters in this Language [sc. Chinese], there are 400 Radicals, from whence the rest are deriv’d.” And the syllabic dictionary of the Chinese language by Samuel Wells Williams, defined in 1874 that: “That part of a character which is not the radical, has no name among the Chinese, but foreigners have termed it the primitive or phonetic.”
In Japanese language, the logograms are known as Kanji and are different from the Chinese characters in many ways. Loanwords from Chinese could be written with Chinese characters in Japanese, while native Japanese words could be written using the kanji for a Chinese word with similar meaning. In Japanese, most Kanji have both a native multi-syllabic Japanese pronunciation and a Chinese mono-syllabic pronunciation.
Studies show that to be literate in Chinese, one must learn around 2,500 characters that are in common everyday use, as to how many Chinese characters exist, that is a question with an opened answer, as The Chart of Generally Utilized Characters of Modern Chinese defines the existence of 7,000 characters, the Great Compendium of Chinese Characters – nearly 55,000 and the Dictionary of Chinese Variant Form contains definitions for over 106,000 Chinese characters.