Chinese script is used mainly in China, but this means 23% of all world’s people and 5% its territory. Chinese script has thousand of different characters, each of them of the same width and height, consisting of many strokes.
Chinese script is traditionally written top-to-down but left-to-right writing direction is now popular as well.
Most Chinese characters mean a single word. Most are composed of two parts: one of them hints the meaning of the word while the other one hints of spelling. E.g. every character related to trees have a 木 part, while every character which should be spelled “MA” or similar has a 馬 as its phonetic part.
No person knows every single word of a language and thus it is fair to say that one knows every single Chinese character. Students are expected to learn 2000-4000 at school and this is enough for day-to-day reading.
Every character consists of strokes that need to be written in particular order. Groups of these strokes known as “radicals” are used to create a kind of alphabet. Every character is collated based on the “radical” it includes and the number of strokes outside that “radical”.
No spaces are used between words.
History of Chinese script
China was one of just 3 places of the world where writing has been invented. Chinese script is the writing systems that has changed the least since the invention.
The first Chinese characters (some 2000 years BC) were painted images of the things they represented. Over centuries however these images became simplified, in many cases beyond recognition. The old stages of the Chinese script characters are still sometimes used for calligraphic purposes. The stage of ~14th century BC is known as jiaguwen (and is still much closer to the images), while the stage of 5th century BC is known as lishu.
“Chinese language” is a myth in a sense as China has many languages and a speaker of one could not understand the others. Chinese nation was unified not by language but by the script. As every character means a word (rather than sound), every Chinese may read the same text in his/her own language.
This is only true to languages with similar grammar. Yet the tremendous influence of Chinese culture and its predominant Mahayana Buddhism expanded Chinese script much further. Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese adopted it for their languages by XXX. Supplement scripts were developed there (kana in Japan, hangul in Korea). Chinese script remained in use only for an ever-decreasing number of words while the rest became written in the local sound-based writing systems.
The sheer number of characters a person needs to learn made some believe the Chinese script is a burden that should be abandoned. French colonial auspices replaced it by Latin in Vietnam, while North Korea uses hangul alone since 1949. After the concurrent communist revolution in China (1949) there were deliberations to abandon the script even in its homeland. A more conservative reform has been chosen by simplifying ~2000 characters, creating Simplified Chinese script. As this was not echoed by the capitalist areas (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong) the Traditional Chinese characters are also used, leading to a partition of Chinese script.