7 things you should know about the new HSK test

In May 2020, it was announced that the HSK test was going to have a major structural change. The new framework is going to look like this:

The new syllabus for the new version of the test will be rolled out starting around July 2021. The new version of the test is likely to be implemented around 2023 or later. 

If you don’t know what I am talking about, keep reading.

#1: What is HSK?

HSK stands for Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (汉语水平考试), translated as the Chinese Proficiency Test. It is China’s only standardised Chinese test for non-native Chinese speakers, evaluating their Chinese language ability in both written (simplified Chinese characters) and spoken (putonghua) forms. 

#2: Why do people take HSK?

Sometimes people have to take a language test. For native Chinese speakers, such as me, if I want to study in the UK or the US, I must take TOEFL or IELTS to demonstrate my English skills are sufficient. For non-native Chinese speakers, if they want to study in China, the equivalent test is HSK. It is part of the admission requirements.

According to China’s Ministry of Education, in 2017, there were 489,200 international students enrolled in Chinese institutions. That is to say, at least 489,200 people took the HSK test and passed.

Also, there are people who take the HSK test simply because it is a challenge. It is a validation of their hard work and Chinese language skills.

#3: What are the requirements of HSK?

The old version of HSK has six levels. The new version, as mentioned at the beginning, is going to have nine levels. 

Let’s take a look at their requirements:

  • Level 1

Old version: Understanding and using simple Chinese words and phrases. Vocabulary level is at 150 words or above. 

New version: Vocabulary level is at 500 words.

  • Level 2

Old version: Communicating in a simple manner with direct exchange of information on daily life. Vocabulary level is at 300 words or above.

New version: Vocabulary level is at 1272 words. 

  • Level 3

Old version: Communicating in Chinese at a basic level in daily life, study or work, and when travelling in China. Vocabulary level is at 600 words or above. 

New version: Vocabulary level is at 2245 words.

  • Level 4

Old version: Conversing in Chinese on a wide range of topics, and communicating fluently with native Chinese speakers. Vocabulary level is at 1200 words or above. 

New version: Vocabulary level is at 3245 words.

  • Level 5

Old version: Reading Chinese newspapers and magazines, watching Chinese films, and giving lengthy speeches in Chinese. Vocabulary level is at 2500 words or above. 

New version: Vocabulary level is at 4316 words.

  • Level 6

Old version: Easily comprehending any written and spoken information in Chinese, and effectively expressing themselves in Chinese in both written and spoken form. Vocabulary level is at 5000 words or above. 

New version: Vocabulary level is at 5456 words.

  • New Level 7 - 9: Vocabulary level is at 11092 words.

#4: How are these numbers of words calculated?

I have no idea. But I can say that these numbers seem low. I’ll give you two examples. 

The first example is the requirement for Level 1 test is 500 words. The guideline is that in order to acquire these 500 words, students will learn 300 characters. According to my own experience of working on the Chinese Reading and Writing series, I know that 300 characters are capable of generating a lot more words than 500 words. 

The complete Chinese Reading and Writing series includes six books, teaching 320 characters, which generate 1291 words. If we scale down a bit, the first five books teach 270 characters, which generate 966 words. These words are not exhaustive. 

Therefore, 500 words required for the new HSK Level 1 are only half of the available words possibly generated by 300 characters. That’s why I think 500 words seem low, and seem not as efficient if students have a chance to learn more words using the existing characters. 

Another example is the requirement for Level 5 test. If I only read the description of this level, which is “Reading Chinese newspapers and magazines, watching Chinese films, and giving lengthy speeches in Chinese”, I would think that the level 5 test is really hard. 

The reason I am saying that is because all the articles in Mandarin Express Intermediate Level A Student's Book are written based on the styles of mainstream media, and the topics cover some regular sections of a typical newspaper, such as finance and common medical knowledge. Every chapter presents a large amount of new words. That is just one textbook. 

Given this experience, I think it is really hard to calculate a definite number of words required for this level to achieve the desired result, and if we have to put a number down, it must be higher than “4316 words”. 

#5: Where to register and take the test?

There are test centres all over the world. Check out this website to find a location.

Due to the COVID pandemic, online tests are also offered in some areas.

#6: Who benefits from HSK?

HSK is a huge business. I would say the test organiser benefits from it the most. They are the indisputable authority, who also offer a range of products and services, such as HSK preparation books, mock tests, courses, and so on. 

The next would be publishers and schools, who also offer HSK preparation books and courses. 

Students get anxieties and uncertainties, especially if they have to take the same test a multiple times in order to get the best result possible (there is no limit on how many times a person can take HSK).

#7: Does MSL Master have anything to do with HSK?

Nothing. We don’t approve, neither practice, excessive test culture. All our Chinese learning materials are developed independently, without referring to any of the Chinese tests, HSK included. 

Our goal is for our students to develop strong Chinese language skills and to understand subtle cultural references, so that they can function well in a Chinese speaking environment, like a fish in water! It has nothing to do with HSK. Passing HSK test is only a byproduct. 

Besides, the format of tests keep changing. The new version of HSK is already the third version, and it is going to be an old version sometime in the future. Test organisers may revise the number of words required higher, or change the structure of the test completely, so that the test result can truly reflect the actual need for students to function well in China.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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