My take on HSK

If you have been following my Twitter stream or my blog you will know that I am learning Mandarin Chinese. You may also know that I have been preparing for an exam, a HSK exam to be exact, one that I voluntarily subjected (applied for) myself to (I am sure that I was possessed by some mean Chinese fairytale creature when I applied for that exam!).

The HSK exam, or to call the child by it's full English name Chinese Proficiency Test (Chinese Simplified: 汉语水平考试 / Chinese Traditional: 漢語水平考試 / Pinyin: Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì) is a proficiency test for non-native Chinese speakers. For an overall summary check out the HSK Wikipedia article. There are six levels: 1 & 2 being Beginner, 3 & 4 being Intermediate and 5 & 6 being Advanced. In total the exam has three parts: listening, reading and speaking (advanced levels also include writing). Listening and reading are actually seen as one part while the speaking test (oral exam) can be taken separately. Each level suggests how many words and characters you should know and how fluent your Chinese should be e.g. what you should be able to accomplish.

It's a useful guideline but if you're thinking about taking the exam I wouldn't let the 'requirement' put you off. What I mean to say is if you think you're for example a Level 4 (or you're actually pretty confident / sure that you are) then go for it, use the practice and study materials available to see how well you get on. I took the Level 2 exam (because I'm a novice but also because I am a reasonable human being and not suicidal when it comes to learning a new language or taking an exam) and the guideline is a character count of almost 350 (which I don't quite understand but never mind) and 300 words. Whereas I have been focusing on the 300 word requirement for the last two months or so, I would say that I am confident on about 250 characters. Well actually, let me rephrase that, I should be confident on about 250 characters but I have the strange habit of reading out a character and three lines later, when I stumble upon the same character once again, I give my teacher a baffled look, which (and I'm sure of that) drives her to the very edge of insanity. I make it up by being a 怪小南瓜 (strange little pumpkin / guài xiǎo nánguā) which is my Chinese nickname (don't ask!).

Let me venture off topic for a little bit here, I promise I will get back to talking about the HSK Test pretty quickly. I changed teachers (out of necessity) in the middle of my preparations for the exam and my new teacher has raised the bar quite a bit. How you may ask? Well, that's easy. NO MORE PINYIN. Yes, you read that right, I'm now longer allowed that fluffy safety blanket called Pinyin. No more phonetic spelling during reading practice and you know what? It's the best thing I could have ever asked for. Once the Pinyin has gone, you really start thinking about the characters. What's this one called and how do I pronounce that one and why on earth dose this one and that look like they ought to be fraternal twins?

I am not sure if I should have left out the Pinyin earlier or if now is the perfect time but I am really enjoying going through one of my teacher's reading exercises without the help of the pronunciation of the words I'm reading aloud. I'm finally paying attention to the characters, not the Pinyin which is what I was mostly doing before. I jot down the Pinyin when I don't know the characters, can't recall the correct tone or simply don't know the character but otherwise it's Chinese characters only. Granted, I read like a primary school student (or maybe worse) but I can finally say "today I read a Chinese text" and I don't feel like I'm cheating when making that statement. I am a lot more focused and engaged when studying and reading Chinese has suddenly become tremendous fun. I cannot wait until I can pick up my first book in Mandarin Chinese and start reading it. It's gonna be fun, baby!

Anyhow, the reason why I made this slight excursion is because what I want to say is - drop the Pinyin when practising for the exam. Focus on the characters and try to memorise them and their pronunciation. Once you know a character and how to pronounce it, I promise you'll feel an amazing sense of accomplishment and achievement. Up the stakes, put the fun into learning Chinese characters. Be creative, make up a little story to a character if you can't remember it. For example, I will never ever forget the character 旅游 (lǚyóu). Why? Because when my friend in Germany, who speaks no Chinese, read the pronunciation of the character, her first thought was 'Lügner' ['lyːɡnɐ] which is the German word for 'liar'. Now, whenever I look at the character, I can barely stop myself from laughing.

Or, another example: For reasons unknown I forever kept confusing the character  (guò) with  (hái) until my teacher pointed at  and said "看那儿,小''!" - it is sufficient to say that I burst out laughing and I will now never ever confuse those two characters again because I always check if there is a '' or not.

On that note, we have ventured far enough from the yellow brick road, let's get back on track. This blog post is after all supposed to be about the HSK Test not my take on learning Chinese characters. I leave that to my teacher to the pros out there...for now anyway. One day, I may be knowledgeable (yes, I'm throwing big words!) enough to tell you more than little anecdotes that may make you chuckle away or shake your head in utter desperation - if it's the latter I don't want to know, if it's the former please comment. ;-)

Anyway, the HSK exam, pretty tough apparently, they say, amongst other try and scare you off, of course. I decided not to listen because, let me tell you the Cambridge Exam of English Proficiency isn't exactly a walk in the park either...if you don't study for it. If you do study and genuinely want to take the exam well then you are half way there. Also, I would suggest that you go and find yourself (preferably on Twitter) some amazing people who will tweet you 'good luck' on exam helps tremendously. Furthermore keep your cool on the day. Keep it stress free. Pack your stuff the day before, go to bed at a reasonable hour and DON'T spend revising until 3am in the morning and whatever you do DO NOT pick up that exercise book on exam day to have one last read. Whatever you don't know come exam day you will not learn / understand half an hour before the test commences.

I don't really want to give you a set guideline on how you should study for the exam if you're taking the exam, no matter what level you are, as everyone has their own approach to studying and you should definitely find out what works best for you. What I can suggest is that you start with reading the guide which includes a full guideline on how the test is structured, what you should pay attention to, how the answer sheet is filled out (Chinese exam answer sheets are fun...not!)

 Sample, click to enlarge

One positive thing is, there's plenty of study material out there, you just need to find it. There are books if you want to go down that route, but there is plenty of study material online. On the downside, most pages are in Chinese so if you're just a beginner that can make it a little difficult to find suitable material. Thankfully my teacher did some research which helped a lot. To give you a little starting point, here are the Do's and Don't's of the exam process (mostly Don't's). provides heaps of information as well as practice tests so even if you aren't taking the exam or aren't preparing for it, you can still have a look. A few more practice papers can be found here and here (online mock exams). I hope this helps. Loads can also be found by spending some time on Google.

During the Level 1 & 2 exam you get the bonus of having the Pinyin underneath the characters in your exam papers. No such luck from Level 3 onwards but and I refer back to my earlier rant, that's not a disaster, in fact it is probably and most definitely a good uhm get studying.

On another, exam (unrelated) note, I find the suggested characters you should know for each level quite a good guide for students. The required words are no-nonsense, everyday words that will definitely aid you in becoming fluent in Mandarin Chinese at some point as well as having a varied vocabulary. Add to that your personal interest, words you want to know, idioms you learn along the way, slang you pick up from friends, etc. and you're bound to built up a varied vocabulary that you can work opinion, however I welcome others.

What else? Well I can tell you what I did to prepare for the exam. For starters I spend a lot of time leaning vocabulary (and whenever I was fed up with that I relied on my large box of things to procrastinate with). I focused nearly all my time on learning the required words, trying to drill them into my head. I made up sentences using those words and I read a lot of mock exam papers and did mock exam tests. Listening practice I did together with my teacher who prepared her very own listening exams (kudos to her, they were fab!).

In addition to all that I made flashcards of all the 300 words listed in the HSK Level 2 guide (a round of applause for me please, it was bloody hard work!). I wrote the character and the relevant Pinyin on the front of the flashcard (and because my printer doesn't print on both pages, I took a pen and scribbled the English translation of the words on the back, pretty small so you can't see it when holding one flashcard up. In hindsight, I wish I'd written the Pinyin on the back as well but when I made those flashcards, I wasn't brave enough. If I ever do them again, I definitely would write only the character on the card and the rest on the back.

So to sum it all up:

1) Plenty of reading (out loud!) and watch your tones. Make understanding what you're reading part of your exercise. Anyone can reel off a text without actually understanding it (students get pretty good at this in school).
2) Plenty of listening practice using the words you are required to know.
3) Plenty of speaking practice...what better way to remember all those new words than to use them in your daily life. Plaster your kitchen with post-its if you must (and your flatmate, parents, girlfriend, wife, boyfriend, husband, etc. - I could've just written partner, eh?)
4) Plenty of character writing practice if you take one of the advanced exams.

On a personal note, and because I'm a huge fan of them, all the words I needed for my exam, I could find on my Mandarin Poster so if you have one (if not then I have no idea what on earth you are waiting for), pick a special colour and get started on highlighting those characters you need to know. My Mandarin Poster looks pretty with all its underlined characters. Some would call it a tad bit messy but I like it, it makes me smile. Never-mind that I'm obsessed with standing in front of my poster and reading out characters, it's brilliant study material.

I hope I could help a little bit despite rambling a lot...uhm I'm sure there is someone or something I can blame my rambling on, I'll get back to you on that. I'm by no means a HSK expert but if there's anything you'd like to ask me, feel free, I'll try to help if I can and if I can't I'll be honest with you.

Last but not least, this is from one of the sample tests. Who can tell me if the second sentence is correct based on the first statement?





As of November 22nd (2011年11月22日), I have officially passed the Level 2, HSK Exam (汉语水平考试二级). I am in a little bit of a shock right now as I type this as I really didn't know how I did but I passed with 98 points on the listening part and 75 points on the reading (comprehension) part, giving me a total of 173 points. I am beyond delighted that I passed and would like to thank all the amazing people who have put up with my endless rants and crankiness about preparing for the test as well as my bad Chinese. Thanks naturally also go to my two Chinese teachers who have ever so patiently taught me and helped me prepare for my exam! 谢谢!谢谢!谢谢!大家都,我爱你!


  1. You've got a good grasp of HSK already! You'll be heading to the other levels soon. I never really took HSK tests, never had the opportunity. Took a mock exam of HSK 2 two years ago. I think I'm close to 4/5 now.

    The hardest for me is the listening comprehensions, 'cause I don't get much practice with listening here in South Africa.

    Good luck!
    Confused Laowai


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