History and Overview of Chinese Characters
Chinese Characters have a history as old as the Chinese language itself. The oracle bone script is one of the first evidences in the history of chinese character evolution and this script dates back to 1000BC. It was written on bones and turtle shells, hence where it got its name from. Chinese Characters then evolve and change into the Bronze script, also which got it's name from being inscribed on Bronze pots and other bronze materials. Then the seal script surfaced, which was used on official seals. It is still widely used by artists and enthusiasts as a means to stamp letters or sign their art.
Seal script was part of a unification of scripts in China, and was one of the first standardized writing systems for the country. However, even then there were other scripts present, such as an early version of the clerical script, which is the closest precursor to today's regular script. Throughout this evolution, chinese characters have become more and more abstract.
At first, most characters were pictographic, where the character depicts the object: like hieroglyphs for example. The character for horse, 马, was more complex and represented a horse more closely. The same goes for many other characters. Some of these pictographic characters still retain their pictographic significance, for instance, 山, which means mountain, or, 田,which means field.
However, pictographic characters are in the minority in the modern regular script. Some of these pictographic elements were also further abstracted with the advent of the simplified script. This was a move by the Chinese government, in the 1950's, to simplify the regular script, also called traditional characters, to increase literacy and make it easier for foreigners to learn. Simplified characters are used in Mainland China, whereas Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Singapore still use the traditional characters. There's debate surrounding the use of simplified and traditional characters, however, both have their advantages and disadvantages.
There are over 30,000 characters and its exact count is not known, however one only needs to know about 3000 characters to read a newspaper without trouble. This still is a very high number. However, chinese characters are made up of strokes and radicals, which makes writing it not so daunting in the end. Head on over the construction and writing of Chinese character page to learn more.