January 06, 2012

Efficiency of Chinese characters

Efficiency of Chinese characters
By Vladimir Skultety, M.A., B.A.

A lot of people say that Chinese characters are inefficient, because they are too complicated and there is too may of them. By contrast they say that western alphabetic scripts are much easier to learn, much easier to write and are thus much more efficient.

In this article, I tried to somewhat objectively analyze the situation, which was a bit hard, because I like Chinese characters a lot, but either way I looked at it, I still think that characters are at least as efficient and in some cases even much more efficient than western alphabetic scripts. 

  • There’s a lot of them. I don’t like numbers but it is true, that you need to know at least 2500 – 3000 characters to read something.  (Edit 5.5.2012 - strangely enough, after my study I found that you would actually only need about 2180 characters to read the newspaper)
  • It’s much more difficult to remember characters compared to the simple 35 or so letters of an alphabetic script
  • They are easy to forget
  • They are easy to confuse
  • You not only need to learn how to recognize them, you need to learn how to write them by hand which doubles your effort
  • They are unpractical when you need to look up something in a list (dictionary, telephone list)

  • They save up space and time. A character is much shorter than a typical western language word. Moreover, since each character is a bearer of information you often can see signs with only one or two characters that would sometimes require a whole sentence in English for instance.
  • They are beautiful, especially the traditional ones
  • They are an integral part of the Chinese culture
  • They make the language less susceptible to change
  • They allow people across China with different dialects to communicate
  • They enhance the memory and intelligence of Chinese kids
Handwriting comparison

People often argue, that handwriting Chinese characters is time consuming, because there are too many strokes you need to make, but I can think of 50 examples just of the top of my head, where you actually need much less strokes to write characters than to write the corresponding English words:

Example Word
Number of strokes by pen
Chinese Traditional
13 + 6 = 19
Chinese Simplified
5 + 6  = 11
Chinese characters
9 + 11 = 20
Čínske znaky
10 + 8 = 18
Китайское письмо
16 + 10 = 25
Chinesische Schriftzeichen
13 + 18 = 31
Caractères chinois
12 + 9 = 21
Kínai írás
10 + 6 = 16

I know this is not the most representative example and you could come up with hundred other examples where western languages would be more effective, but it proves one point. Not in one single language were there less strokes in the word "Chinese characters" than in Simplified Chinese and only in two less strokes required than in Traditional Chinese. I know that one could argue that this is simply because the word Chinese characters is long in every language, but it does consist of exactly two words just as it does in Chinese and there are tons of other examples where this premise holds true.

Typing comparison

Typing on a computer is a slightly different matter. In the following table I tried to compare the amount of keyboard strokes necessary to type the same word/sentence in English and Chinese:

Total number of keyboard strokes
Chinese characters
I am European
Where do you want to go today?
What are you doing?
I really think that that was a great movie

Again, the examples I chose might not be the most representative ones, but to be fair I really chose the first thing that came across my mind without giving it too much thought as to which sentence would be shorter. 

Writing length comparison

Although this is a little more complex, because while comparing sentence lengths in general, language structure has a bigger impact on the length of a sentence than the writing system itself, my experience generally is, that a text written in Mandarin is a lot shorter than the same text written in English:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Chinese Simplified
Total number of words
Total number of keyboard hits
Total number of strokes with pen
190 (roughly)

Public signs and announcements comparison

The language of public signs and announcements is absolutely fascinating and a little different than the usual written language and this is where Chinese really hits hard with its efficiency. A very nice example is the following sentence seen in the Taipei Subway:

Yield your seat to the elderly, the disabled, pregnant women and passengers with children.
Total number of words
Total number of keyboard hits
Total number of strokes with pen

讓坐給 means yield your seat to, is old, is weak, is women and is children. Chinese is an isolating language where each Chinese character bears information. If you’d write the same sentence in English which incidentally also happens to be an isolating language like this: Let sit to old weak women child – you might get your point across, but it would not be clear whether you should yield your seat to old weak women and children or the old, the weak, women and children not to mention that this would not be proper English. Doing the same in flective languages like Slovak or agglutinating Hungarian would be completely impossible.

When it comes to the total number of strokes by pen, there is only a slight difference, but would be much greater if the characters were simplified. To be fair, since the sign was written in Traditional characters originally I kept it that way.

Also, try to compare the amount of information you can jam into the same screen. I compared Xinhua and BBC main pages:

Reading speed

Even though I cannot compare this too well, since my Mandarin reading speed is too slow, I have the impression my Taiwanese friends read much faster in Mandarin than I do in Slovak/English. I think the structure of written Mandarin, length of Mandarin syllables and the fact that most Chinese do not vocalize words in their minds when they read, which is something I do, influences this to a great extent. The small size of a Chinese character does influence this too as your eyes have to travel a shorter distance on the page.

This article does not even pretend to be a serious study as there is too little actual research data in it and it only represents best how I feel about the problem, proves some points and hopefully will allow the reader to think a little differently about the efficiency of Chinese characters. Even thought the examples I gave were very random and only reflect my opinion about the efficiency of Chinese characters when compared to western alphabetic scripts, I hope they proved at least some points.


  1. Very interesting article! Thanks for the insight.

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

  3. This is a very interesting article. I would be especially interested in learning more about this statement: "They enhance the memory and intelligence of Chinese kids." Is there data for that? We know that Asians test higher than Caucasians on IQ tests. Is Asian language training involving calligraphy perhaps a factor in IQ testing? How do American Asian kids who don't learn calligraphy test compared to the Asian kids who both learn it and speak it?

  4. Hello Doug, there might be some research about this out there somewhere, but I haven't seen it unfortunately. I would also be interested in reading about it.

  5. Actually typing Chinese needs even less key strokes than shown here. You don't need to type the whole pinyin. For 汉字 you can just type "hz" and use a third stroke to select the word. It's not intended that you confirm the character after every syllable. Even by pen it's faster. Unlike Latin cursive where some letter combinations require hand movements interrupting the flow of the writing, Chinese characters in cursive can often be finished without lifting the pen.

    1. That 'hz' thing is interesting. But this necessarily leaves you with more combinations too choose from, which is more tiring. Then there's the fact that the character combination you're looking for might be on the second or third 'page' in your little character combination options pop-up window requiring you to make 2-3 additional keyboard hits. You also have to consider the additional time you spend looking for the correct combination. Who knows which one is more effective, but it is interesting.

  6. Why is "They make the language less susceptible to change" a positive thing?

    1. It's been more than 10 years since I wrote this article, I have to think about what I actually meant by that:)

      I think what meant was the disconnect between the written and spoken language that happens over time, like what happened to English and English spelling.