A Report on the New HSK

Jonathan of The Art of Living has e-mailed me with a link to his report of the new HSK. Although not yet officially in use, the new Chinese proficiency test is apparently already being tested on groups of students.

Some telling passages from Jonathan’s report:

> I have to say, it was a big improvement. The test was neatly organized into four sections that covered all aspects of
communications: listening, speaking, reading, writing. The old test only covered listening and reading (receptive abilities) and ignored speaking and writing (productive abilities), which encouraged the Korean study bugs to lock themselves in their dorm rooms with tapes and books and totally avoid actually talking to Chinese people.

> They also cut out all the one-liner grammar questions, fill-in-the-blank segments, and dissect-a-sentence sections, and focused exclusively on reading comprehension, which was always the most challenging anyway.

> The listening was pretty much the same, and the writing was just a simple composition assignment, but the speaking component was crazy: we were given 15 minutes to prepare a five minute oral presentation that addressed the specific prompt questions of two different scenarios: in one scenario, we were calling a friend to arrange details for a weekend outing; in the second scenario, we were factory workers lodging a complaint with a boss.

And, perhaps most interesting to me:

> The new H.S.K. couldn’t care less about 成语. The content was fully geared towards operating efficiently in modern Chinese society: the listening content included a customer-service hotline dialogue and a television ad for cell phones. The reading comprehension material included a standard business contract and a report on a recent summit on environmental protection. For our writing assignment, we wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper to share our views on recent local government policy (how democratic!).

For the whole thing, go read Jonathan’s account.

Jonathan took both the intermediate HSK (which tests up to level 8) and the advanced HSK in one day. Yikes! He said that “mid-level test was easy and an excruciating waste of [his] time.” So I had to ask him a few questions.

How long have you been studying Chinese? What is your Chinese level like?

> I’ve been studying Chinese for three years in total, with about half of that time dedicated to full-time study and immersion. I’m generally around the top of my class, and the class I’m in now is the highest class at the university, so I guess school is over soon. My Chinese friends say that my 口语 is 100 percent understandable, but carries a significant accent. I’m at the level where I just need to stay in China long term, work and live around Chinese people, and gradually learn all the exceptions to the rules.

When you said the intermediate exam was easy, is that just because you’re an advanced student, or did you mean that the intermediate level exam is actually easier than it used to be? What levels have you taken before?

> Yeah, I meant the intermediate exam was easy for advanced students. At the end of the tests, we were asked to fill out a survey about our reaction (was the test too long? too difficult? did we believe the results would accurately represent our level?) and my response was that the test was actually very well-designed. Last December, I took the old intermediate exam and scored the Level 8 (though I got lucky). I think the new test is on the whole a tad easier than the old, but the breadth of its scope more than compensates, and the new test is definitely more challenging than the old, if not more difficult (if that makes any sense).

Just to clarify: the questions testing vocab, grammar, and word choice are entirely gone?

> Yes, pick-the-word is gone. Fill-in-the-blank is gone. All the old questions where you have an isolated sentence and are expected to interpret its meaning are gone. The ENTIRE [reading comprehension] section is made up of 5-7 one-page-long passages followed by several reading-comp questions. The trick is, it would be impossible if you actually read the whole passages– to score well, you need to play it like the GRE’s or SAT’s and skim skim skim for info relevant to the questions.

Do you really expect me to believe that there are no chengyu on the advanced test? Come on… none??

> Let me put it this way… we were never directly tested on 成语。I’m sure there was some [4 character words] embedded in the reading passages or listening dialogues, but they didn’t stick out at me and I answered most of the questions without paying any attention to them.

So there you have it. According to one man, the HSK is taking giant steps toward more practicality. I am very glad to hear it.


John Pasden

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


  1. Sounds like a great improvement over the way it’s done now… especially killing the reliance on 成语 and other relatively hard to apply to real life portions of the Chinese language.

    Adding in the speaking portion to the intermediate test is also a much needed improvement – by the time you can pass it you should be able to speak pretty decently, even if you just manage to eek out the lowest score on it.

  2. I took the Advanced HSK back in 2004 and it had a spoken and a written part, so I guess you are talking about the intermediate or basic HSK, but have any changes been made to the advanced? I would actually like to take the advanced again so I could ace it this time, even though I know that it is no real reflection of language ability, it would be nice to achieve “Man fen”

  3. well, i guess chengyu is being used by local Chinese people just as often as American use American slang. It’s a somewhat trivia but it’s kinda an indicator of ability of integrating your language ability into the REAL world in which you live in. rrrrr, just some thoughts.

    Somehow, I’ve always been interested in taking a look at the test and might take the test as well. Just want to see what percentile I am able to score

  4. I hadn’t taken the old Advanced test before, so it’s harder for me to compare, but I had looked at study guides for the old Advanced test and the changes still seem significant. Didn’t there used to be these agonizing sentence-construction questions and proof-reading “find-the-error” bits?

    I remember some Chinese friends looking at samples of the old Advanced test and being totally bewildered– out of context, it seemed to make very little sense.

    I think that’s the major change in the New H.S.K., regardless of level– putting the whole thing in some kind of context.

  5. … we were never directly tested on 成语。


    No, I kid. This sounds interesting — I’ve never actually taken the HSK, in part because all of the practice tests I ever saw made the thing look like a total joke. (But mostly because I was too lazy to register.) This does sound like a big improvement — now we’ll have to see if Chinese pedagogy can follow the HSK out of the Stone Age.

    I do have to say, though, that I think the move towards the ‘practical’ is kind of a shame. Reading newspaper stories and contracts is kind of a non-starter for me — practical, to be sure, but not really worth the effort it takes to get to that level of proficiency. 成语 and literary Chinese aren’t the end-all be-all, but they’re a much more compelling reason to learn the language, at least from where I’m sitting. I still remember the first time I was able to read a newspaper. There was a momentary thrill that years of study had paid off — and then the realization that it was totally not worth it.

  6. The status of the changes to the HSK are currently in doubt, along with the C-test (which I took yesterday, just for fun) and the latest very-low level HSK exam. See this self-promotional link for the details.

  7. I did the intermediate HSK two years ago, and I don’t remember being directly tested on 成语. In fact I thought it was a pretty reasonable test, focusing comprehension (listening and reading) and on fairly practical grammar. Already a lot better than most English exams in China.

  8. That’s interesting. Could anyone tell me if HSK has new graded wordlists? If yes, where could one find them? Many thanks in advance!

  9. Been looking for this info for awhile. Thanks for putting it up, John!

  10. “I think the new test is on the whole a tad easier than the old, but the breadth of its scope more than compensates, and the new test is definitely more challenging than the old, if not more difficult (if that makes any sense).”

    Huh what? The new taste is both easier and harder than the old? Is it in some undetermined quantum state? More importantly, is my cat alive or dead?

  11. Now if only they would revamp the English tests. One time, for fun I took the TEM (Test for College English Majors) English Listening Test. I got half of the questions wrong. When a native speaker can’t even pass the test, something just ain’t right.

  12. […] Anyway . . . now that we have two analogies in this poorly written post (the fish one in the title, and now this last one, which is by far the cheesiest of the two and yet, I feel, also the most apt) I think I should do myself a favor and end it. I would write a third analogy, but I”m nearly not creative enough, and need to start studying for the HSK. […]

  13. Perhaps the reason reading newspapers in Chinese isn’t worth it is that the news here, in any language, is dull, boring, and largely useless. But that’s just me!

  14. Ben: That’s interesting. Was it the offical test, or one of the hundreds of simulated exams that students use for revision purposes?

  15. Do you have to be able to hand-write for the test? Or is the writing all done on computers using pinyin?

  16. So when will this new test come into practice? Is it likely that next year it will be in use? I was planning on taking the middle level of HSK next year but we’ll see how it goes. I’m glad that the new test will consider all aspects of Chinese as the likelihood of your strong point out of the 4 not being one of those 2 skills would be high.

  17. […] while some of us foreigners are feeling eager to be tested by the HSK, a portion of the Chinese population is wishing a more arduous kind of standardized testing upon […]

  18. Dear John and those respectful test takers:
    I thought I’d like to let you know I can’t find a single mistake you are expected to find in the grammar part of the advance HSK mock test.
    PS: I am a native speaker.No kidding.

  19. Some of you guys are obviously very good at learning languages.

  20. I was wondering if there were any updates on any of this information. Any idea where I could find practice exams that follow the new format? Anyone know what to expect on the ’09 exams? Did anybody take the new exam in ’08 and would have anything further to say?

  21. Does anyone know if it’s necessary to be able to handwrite characters? or is typing pinyin sufficient to take the test?

  22. This comes as quite a relief. I live in Harbin right now and am taking the 初级 this Saturday. I have to say that finding materials to study by have been difficult to find, because the bookstores stock the old version practice exams only, alongside new edition books and vocab lists, making it hard to know exactly how we’re going to be tested. The older verion of the exam seems to have been quite disorganized, so I’m glad my first attempt will be in the more streamlined version.

    Thanks for the update! <3




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