Let's trace the number of Chinese characters from Han Dynasty 汉朝 (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.)
说文解字 (Shuwenjiezhi) - The first complete dictionary that listed all Chinese character was published in Han Dynasty 汉朝 at around 100 A.D. It was regarded as the the origin of Chinese characters. It included 9,353 characters.
康熙字典(Kangxi) - the well known classic of Chinese dictionary was published in 1716 of Qing Dynasty 清朝. The Kangxi dictionary included about 46,964 characters compiled in 42 booklets. Most of the characters were unused and rare variant accumulated over the centuries. Those characters were regrouped under 214 radicals still in use today in many dictionaries to classified characters in traditional form.
The first official simplified form characters were published in 1956 by the People's Republic of China. Many additions and modifications to the original list were adopted since. The list included 6,500 simplified characters.
Nowadays the simplified form characters are used in China and Singapore, the traditional form characters are still used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and most of the overseas Chinese communities.
In 1952, literacy for peasants was defined as knowledge of 1,500 characters and literacy for labour workers as knowledge of 2,000 characters.
A well educated person can probably recognize more than 6,000 characters.
Since Chinese words are generally composed of two or three characters, a few thousand characters can be used to understand hundreds and thousands of words.
The Chinese computerized fonts for words processor include 6,500 characters of the simplified form and 13,500 of the traditional form.
Rosie From Learn Chinese Language Online (http://www.learn-chinese-language-online.com)
The goal of Learn Chinese Language Online (LCLO) is to reduce the Mandarin Learning curve, promote and introduce the most efficient way to grasp the broad foundation of Chinese language.