Chinese is written with characters which are known as hanzi. The characters were originally pictures of people, animals or other things, but over the centuries they have become increasingly stylised and no longer resemble the things they represent. Many characters have been combined with others to create new ones.
Until the early 20th century, Classical Chinese was the main form of writing in China. It was standardised during the late Han Dynasty (25-220 AD) and was also used in Korea, Japan and Vietnam before they developed their own writing systems.
In Classical Chinese most words were monosyllabic and written with a single character. However, during the 1920s a new form of written Chinese modelled on spoken Mandarin was developed. Most Chinese publications since then have been written in this form, which is known as baihua, though Classical Chinese constructions and especially proverbs are still used to some extent.
In spoken Chinese, words are made up of one, two or more syllables. Each of the syllables is written with a separate character. Each character has its own meaning, though many are used only in combination with other characters.
Every character is given exactly the same amount of space, no matter how complex it is. There are no spaces between characters and the characters which make up multi-syllable words are not grouped together, so when reading Chinese, you not only have to work out what the characters mean and how to pronounce them, but also which characters belong together.
The Chinese writing system is an open-ended one, meaning that there is no upper limit to the number of characters. The largest Chinese dictionaries include about 56,000 characters, but most of them are archaic, obscure or rare variant forms. Knowledge of about 3,000 characters enables you to to read about 99% of the characters used in Chinese newspapers and magazines. To read Chinese literature, technical writings or Classical Chinese though, you need to be familiar with at least 6,000 characters.