HSK: the final stretch

I will take the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi — Chinese Proficiency Examination) this coming Sunday, December 21st. Taking the HSK was part of my plan all along to study Chinese full-time this semester. Thus, in addition to my 20 hours of Chinese classes per week, I’ve also been taking 4 hours of optional HSK prep courses (well, usually).

Throughout this semester I’ve been faced with a question of study method: should I take my classes the “Chinese way” or the “American way?” The “Chinese way” means going to lots of classes but doing comparatively little outside work. Most “learning” is accomplished in the classroom. The “American way” means the student exerts much more effort on his own time than in the classroom, effectively making the student largely responsible for his own learning instead of the teacher.

For obvious reasons, I prefer the “American way.” I would have liked to have studied my butt off at home and totally conquered each and every lesson in my textbooks. But that didn’t turn out to be too practical. With my own English classes to teach and an active social life, 20 classes kept me pretty busy, and I even (guiltily) skipped a fair amount of them. So I had to grudgingly accept the “Chinese way.”

The result was that I didn’t pick up as much additional vocabulary as I would have liked. Now that I’m really hitting the HSK prep books, I’m discovering that vocabulary is precisely what I should have been hitting hard all along. Listening comprehension, reading comprehension, character fill-in-the-blank — in each case my problems result from a deficient vocabulary, not in grammar, speed, or character recall. I need to read more Chinese, more often. I’m shooting for level 8 — the highest score in the intermediate range — on my first sitting of the HSK, so I can’t have too many mistakes.

One of my few comforts is that other students tell me that the “red book” (中国汉语水平考试应试指南,北京语言文化大学出版社) we use is more difficult than the actual HSK.

There are some strange topics chosen for the reading comprehension passages: Evolutionary reasons for the scarcity of black flowers in nature, Health risks associated with contact lenses, Astronomists’ current theories on ‘killer stars,’ an Overview of the history of Hong Kong’s subway system, Pig breeding issues around the world, etc.*

I actually prefer the more scientific ones. You can infer most of the really difficult words, and you can employ a lot of common sense. What’s the main reason that killer stars swallow up other stars? Even if you can’t read everything in the text, you know it’s gonna be gravity if you have any background at all in astronomy.

What’s the point of this post? If there is any, it’s basically just to tell those of you who intend to take the HSK that you need to be hitting vocabulary hard. The Chinese designed this test. They are the original examination masters, and there’s nothing they love more than making poor youngsters squander their vigor on rote memorization of vocabulary. If you want to take the HSK, you have to comply with these sadists’ designs.

* The HSK lumps Beginner and Intermediate levels together all on one test. That means if you’re a beginner who can only hope for a very modest score, you’re still going to be subjected to texts filled with the likes of the topics listed above. The idea is that you’ll get the easiest questions right, and your score will reflect your ability. Still seems like a cop-out to me.

Irrelevant sidenote: Richard’s “Interview with a 1989 demonstrator in China” on Living in China is an absolute must-read. It’s very readable for those of you that know what happened in 1989, but don’t necessarily know a lot about it.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Good luck! Should be a piece of cake for you.

    Don’t necessarily agree with this part though. “… and there’s nothing they love more than making poor youngsters squander their vigor on rote memorization of vocabulary. If you want to take the HSK, you have to comply with these sadists’ designs.”

    Try GRE. Those Americans who designed this bloody test are REAL sadists!!!

  2. Hey there John. Your package should be arriving this week (EMS Express 2-3 Days). And I wanted to wish you good luck on the exam. I know you’ve been bustin’ your ass on the Chinese exam – I’m sure if the environment was the same as the first semester at ZUCC, you’d be getting that 8 without any question. You’ll still get an 8 – I believe, I believe.

    But I’m writing because I really like how you point out VOCABULARY and sometimes needless memorization of vocab you’ll never use. Heidi’s Chinese classes at Berkeley are the same way – taught by a Chinese teacher that focuses on lots of vocabulary that she’ll never use.

    Likewise, back in the day at ZUCC, while my students were studying for their English Proficiency Exams, they showed me a lot of the sample test questions and I there was a lot of unneeded vocabulary they had to learn – words I would probably never use or have used. And I’m an English Literature graduate.

    Again, good luck, dude. YOU ARE GETTING AN EIGHT.

  3. I’m sure it’s just a whole native language bias, Fwger, but I thought the GRE was cake and having read the HSK prep material I’m constantly thinking to myself “there is absolutely no way I can learn all these characters, ever.” 🙂

  4. I’ve just started an HSK build-up topic over at Chinese-forums.com, in homepage link.
    I’m hoping for an 8 (got 6 last year) but I reckon my poor character writing may drag me down. My own fault. Currently desperately revising characters.


  5. so do you have to actually write the gd characters or can you type them in a word processor?

  6. John,

    that HSK format sounds just like the British English proficiency test – IELTS. Similar comprehension topics and similarly lumping beginner, intermediate and advanced together a la TOEIC/TOEFL where you are supposed to get the easy ones etc…

  7. Da Xiangchang Says: December 16, 2003 at 6:48 pm

    I haven’t seen the HSK, but I’ll bet it’s A LOT HARDER than the GREs. The GRE verbal section was easy if you spend a few months learning the words. I still remember a couple of those gems: “pulchritudinous” and “bluestocking.” I still remember the definitions. I desire a pulchritudinous bluestocking to converse with and hopefully bang! HA!

  8. thanks for posting the interview. it was excellent.

  9. You have to write the characters. With a pencil. It’s horrible, I hardly know how to write by hand any more in English . . .

    It’s not too similar to the IELTS exam – the HSK is divided into three levels, while there’s only one IELTS exam. Also, there’s no speaking for HSK until advanced (which is ridiculous) and no structured writing either (equally unfortunate).


  10. Good luck!

  11. Good luck, John, you can make it! 8 is yours!

  12. Good luck!:D

  13. d x, i agree that the gre was not bad. i’m sure i would have done better (i did ok) if i had studied anything besides the qualitative stuff (which i only found out after the fact doesn’t even get looked at by most grad programs), but the verbal was mostly just fun. i’m sure there are some of you out there thinking, “fun?!!?,” but keep in mind that i am john’s sister, and both our parents are librarians, so we’re “bluestockings” ourselves (ok, john doesn’t qualify, being male, but whatever). we’re just a language-lovin’ family! 😉
    oh, and d x, i loved your sample sentence!
    (i’ve always loved the word “pulchritudinous” — ever since i learned it in 6th grade while flipping through the dictionary. see what i mean?)

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