A Chinese character is made up of one or more components, for example,
Character with one component: 山 (mountain)
Character with two components: 日 (the Sun) + 月 (the moon) = 明 (bright)
Character with three components: 木 (wood) + 目 (eyes) + 心 (heart) = 想 (to think)
Some components have meanings, but some don’t, and some of them can match up with other components, to form a new character, therefore, a different meaning too.
Generally speaking, there are six formations of the Chinese characters.[table “” not found /]
Strictly speaking, there are about 91,251 Chinese characters collected throughout the whole history, and there are 3,500 characters in The List of Frequently Used Characters in Modern Chinese in 1988. Although learning 2,000 characters would probably be sufficed to read newspapers, have a conversation or even live in China.
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There are various legends about the creation of the Chinese characters. One of them tells how Cāng Jié, a minister of the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di), observed the footprints of birds and animals. He noticed that each one was different and distinctive. Inspired by it, he started to draw pictures of objects, and simplified them by reducing the numbers of lines. And these were the first pictographs, called Xiàng Xing.
Some objects can be very well represented by pictographs, for example日: