The HSK (Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì) is the most widely used proficiency test for Mandarin Chinese for non-native speakers.
Required by many Chinese companies to apply for jobs, Chinese universities to secure scholarships and a source of boasting rights for those in the international Chinese second language community, the HSK exam is, for better or worse, an inescapable part of learning Chinese.
But the test is changing. Whether you’ve completed HSK 1, HSK 6 or have only vaguely heard of the test in relation to a Confucius Institute Scholarship, in this article, we unpack all you need to know about the changes to help you plan your Chinese language journey.
First introduced in 1992, the HSK is held regularly in China and internationally each year and is the most widely accepted Chinese language test in the world.
The original HSK 1.0 version was used from 1990 to 2009 with 11 levels. It was criticised for being impractical and including too many obscure historical and cultural references, so the current HSK 2.0 version, updated 2010 was reduced to 6 levels. This has been again revised in 2021, with HSK 3.0 and levels ranging from HSK 1 to HSK 9.
There has been no shortage of speculation online about the updated HSK 3.0.
At time of writing (October 2021), many things are still unknown. However, the things we do know come directly from official Hànbàn communications (ie. the official HSK Twitter). Hànbàn is an institution affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education, and responsible for administering the test.
The most talked about change is to the number of levels. Whereas previous test levels went from 1 to 6, the updated HSK 3.0 will go from 1 to 9 and will be sub-divided into three stages (1-3, 4-6, 7-9).
As Hanban has said:
“HSK is about to be reformed. In 2020, the Chinese Proficiency Standards will usher in a new change: a hybrid paradigm of ‘Three Stages and Nine Levels’ characterised by integration and all-in-one”
For those brave enough, you can read the official document regarding all the details of the update: ‘Chinese Proficiency Grading Standards for International Chinese Language Education’ here.
The good news regarding HSK 3.0 is that there will be a total reworking to better cover the full range of language proficiency and bring this more in line with the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages).
For example, the CEFR contains the levels A1-2, B1-2 and C1-2, where A1 is the lowest and C2 is the highest. According to various Chinese teachers’ organisations in Europe, the current HSK 6 is roughly equal to B2, leaving C1-2 without an HSK equivalent.
The new HSK 7-9 will largely deal with this range of proficiency, giving advanced learners a way to challenge themselves and get closer to ‘fluency’. HSK 7-9 will be in the form of one test, with level granted depending on the score.
HSK 1 and 2 in the current HSK structure are largely redundant to Australian Chinese language learners in tertiary education due to their relative ease. The proposed changes alleviate this redundancy and help form a better and more applicable structure for Chinese language learning going forward.
While not every aspect regarding HSK 3.0 has been confirmed, some changes to the HSK structure have been announced by Hànbàn.
The new HSK uses four basic Chinese language elements to form its benchmarks, which determine learner’s Chinese proficiency: syllables, characters, vocabulary, and grammar.
Syllables & Characters: The ability to handwrite characters is included and emphasised in the new proficiency standard. A stronger understanding and more in-depth knowledge of characters and their structure is included across all levels.
For HSK 1-3, there will be a section requiring copying of characters within an allocated time. Copying characters in this style is not mentioned for HSK 4-6 but an ‘increasing understanding of Chinese characters‘ is mentioned.
Vocabulary: A well known marker of HSK levels, word lists have also been updated. The wordlists for every level have increased, for example, the current HSK 3 contains roughly the same amount of vocabulary as the new HSK 1 (600 and 500 words respectively).
Don’t let this discourage you! You may have been at an HSK 3 level before but in the new HSK will be at HSK 1 level – your knowledge remains the same!
Grammar: From HSK 4, a new translation portion has been added. There has not yet been clarity around what this will entail, but from the government document it seems this will range from basic translation and interpretation for HSK 4 up to professional level ability for HSK 9.
Please keep in mind that all this could change! Hànbàn is affiliated with The Chinese Ministry of Education, under central party control and impacted by the whim of party education policy and CPC policy direction.
When will the changes be implemented?
There is no need to panic! At least not for a little while. There will be no changes to the HSK Exams in 2021.
Hànbàn has said new versions of HSK Exams for levels 1-6 will most likely be released in 2023-24 and the rollout is expected to take a couple of years, so the process remains a lengthy one.
The new HSK levels 7-9 will be officially launched in March 2022 with pilot tests beginning in December 2021.
While the new standard ‘officially’ came into effect on 1 July 2021, updating exams, textbooks and courses will take a lot longer and Hànbàn has emphasised the gradual implementation of changes and minimal impact this will have on current and near-future test takers.
When it comes to HSK 1-6, the changes will be gradually implemented over 3-5 years – so if you fall in this range, there’s no need to worry until at least 2024 or as late as 2027.
All current exams, certificates, and study material are still valid and will be for the foreseeable future. If you are studying for the HSK now – keep calm and carry on is our advice – your textbooks and certificate’s will remain valid for considerable time.
It’s also important to remember that the world will have to play catchup when the new HSK 3.0 is fully integrated. Updated scholarship entry requirements and job application pre-requisites will need to be updated. Previously, a level between HSK 4-6 was sufficient for students who wanted to pursue graduate or higher-level degree in Chinese or apply for jobs with Chinese companies. Asia Options will update you on these changes as they come about.
How will this impact me?
To be honest – for most people, proposed changes to the HSK will have little impact on their study. It’s worth remembering at this point that the HSK is but ONE measure of your Chinese ability – and by no means a perfect one.
However, the HSK is a good roadmap. I spoke with student of Chinese Deborah Zhang about her motivation for sitting the HSK:
“I sat the HSK 4 in June 2019. There were three main reasons I chose to undertake the test: 1) Given I was on a gap year (and, thus, my results at 北大 had no impact on my transcript or course completion, I used the looming prospect of the HSK to keep me accountable, and get in some regular Chinese study. 2) Whether it be for university admissions or job applications, I believed that undertaking the HSK would be useful to my future – presenting an instant ‘snapshot’ of my Mandarin ability. 3) Whilst Peking University’s Chinese Program culminates in its own set of exams, much of the coursework is also geared towards the HSK. The faculty assists in helping students register, and you could sit the exam on campus – meaning that it was very accessible.”
I quizzed Deborah about the value of the test and how she felt the HSK impacted her Chinese ability:
“I viewed the HSK 4 as a tangible goal to work towards and benefited from the ability to work through a chapter or two a week – learning the requisite vocabulary, reading the set texts, and engaging with the listening exercises. Learning Chinese can often seem like an overwhelming and impossible task but completing exercises and successfully committing characters always gave me a sense of accomplishment, and the feeling that I was making steps in the right direction.”
Deborah also shared some of her personal views of the HSK and why it might not be useful to every Chinese language learner:
“All in all, I think language learners need to manage their expectations towards the HSK. Yes, it is a well-structured and accessible way to tackle the mammoth task that is learning Mandarin – and most of the words you come across, you’re likely to weave into everyday conversation. But it is also a standardised test, and ‘language proficiency’ is subjective and difficult to measure. When viewed through the lens that it is helpful, but not a one-way ticket to becoming a Mandarin whiz, I believe the HSK does a sound job.”
As Deborah mentions, it’s important to remember that the HSK is just one measure of your Chinese language ability and isn’t necessarily suited for everyone. Standardised testing is never perfect and for those looking to become effective Chinese language communicators – there are many other options out there.
However, no matter which method you choose, having a roadmap for studying Chinese is vitally important. Particularly as COVID-induced border restrictions limit international study, setting clear targets and objectives for your language learning is one helpful way of staying on track.
And the changes to the test should not upset anyone’s language journey any time soon.
The changes will be gradual to levels 1-6 and for those who have their HSK 6 already, the updated HSK will add a new challenge for you to complete when you want to. No one should worry about their current HSK level being made redundant any time soon though.
Some helpful links:
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