What is the HSK?

The Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (汉语 水平 考试), or HSK as it is more commonly referred to, is the standardized testing system for students learning Mandarin Chinese as a foreign language – think TOEFL and you pretty much understand the concept except there are three sections of an HSK exam: listening, writing, and oral. It was first developed in 1984 by the Beijing Language Institute as a way to measure the level of Mandarin Chinese learners across a standardized set of parameters. In 2010 the new HSK was introduced to take in to account changes in Chinese teaching methodology so as to better reflect the modern way of learning Chinese.

what is HSK

The HSK is divided into six levels ranging from 1) very basic phrases and common words to 6) fluently expressing yourself among native speakers in both spoken Chinese an
d written (Hanzi). Everyone who takes the HSK exam in China will have their test checked and scored by Hanban, the headquarter of the Confucius Institute. You usually need to wait up to three weeks before you receive your certificate with your score but then you get a beautiful certificate to commemorate your feat.


Why should I take the HSK?

People decide to take the HSK for multiple reasons, of which the most common are:

  1. They need the certificate for university entry
  2. It will help when applying for a job
  3. It helps with studying when you have a goal
  4. To get the HSK scholarship

1) Some university programs will require you to take courses in Chinese. This could be if you want to get a degree in Asian Studies, International Business, Chinese (language and or culture) and many more. These programs will usually have HSK 4 or 5 as the entry level since you need to be able to follow some classes in Chinese. Keep in mind that for university entry, the HSK is generally valid for two years.

2) You’ve heard endless times before and here it is again; China’s economy is quickly becoming the most dominant in the world and any multination worth its salt will look to China as either a market, a production site or a competitor/partner. This means that understanding Chinese culture and business etiquette is increasingly part of the desired skillset among new hires and an excellent way to set yourself apart from the pack when looking for a job. Especially as a recent graduate when you cannot compete in years of experience, you can gain an advantage by having a special skill. Getting a certificate on your Chinese level will not only open doors, it will drop jaws!

3) Doing something without having a clear goal requires more self-discipline than most of us can muster. Attending class after class and drawing the same characters over and over again becomes a chore if you don’t feel that you are getting closer to your goal. For this reason, the HSK can be the finish line that you strive for (this is the case for yours truly here). Knowing that you are zooming in on your goal will not only help you find motivation when needed, it will also give you a focus in your studies.

4) As a way to encourage students of Mandarin Chinese, the Ministry of Education of China and the National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language are awarding scholarships to students who achieve excellent scores on their HSK exam. The scholarships will allow you to have a paid study trip to China to continue improving your Chinese and to become more integrated with Chinese culture.


What are the HSK levels?

HSK level 1 (corresponds to A1)

You can take the exam for HSK 1 when you understand and know how to use some simple characters and sentences. There is no complicated grammar at this stage, but you will need to practice tones. Take this online test to see if you can pass HSK 1

HSK level 2 (corresponds to A2)

At this level you are an elementary learner who command most basic expressions and can get around in your daily life using Chinese. Take this online test to see if you can pass HSK 2

HSK level 3 (corresponds to B1)

You are reaching a more solid grasp of the Chinese language and can carry out conversation about your life, studies or work, and you can make plans in Chinese. Take this online test to see if you can pass HSK 3

HSK level 4 (corresponds to B2)

You are now talking more freely and can even cover topics that are not super basic. Well done! You are also starting to have pretty good vocabulary in characters, so you are able to read a few newspaper articles and don’t really need to rely on English much. Take this online test to see if you can pass HSK 4

HSK level 5 (corresponds to C1)

At HSK 5 you are basically able to live and work in China using only Chinese. You may not be as well-spoken and articulate as the locals, but you are doing just fine. You don’t need subtitles in the movies, and you’ve started reading about current events on the Chinese online newspapers instead of your native language. Take this online test to see if you can pass HSK 5

HSK level 6 (corresponds to C2)

Rockstar! You are fluent in Chinese. What more is there to say? You may not know every word and character out there, but who does anyway?

HSK levels

From the NC state Confucius Institute


What do I need to do to pass the HSK?

For most people, learning a new language is hard work. There is no short cut to learning the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation of an entirely different linguistic system. With that being said, there are definitely some learning methods that work better than others. At Hutong School, we believe in immersion! This means that we think you learn a language better when you surround yourself with the language and the culture that the language stems from. While learning Chinese is of course possible anywhere, you will never progress as fast as you do when you are in China surrounded by native speakers and forced to use your Chinese both inside the classroom and outside.

For all of the HSK levels, the list of words and characters you need to know will increase. For pronunciation you need to have a great tutor who will keep correcting you until you have the tones straight and know your z from your zh. When you are not in class, you can improve your listening skills and practice your pronunciation with online tools such as ChinesePo d: with a vast range of podcasts covering many topics and difficulty levels, you can find something that suits your level and your interest.

We take advantage of the daily commute to cram in a few HSK exampodcasts on the way to work and little by little it all adds up.  There are plenty of specific study guides out there, so we suggest that you check them out and select the ones that work best for you. Everyone has a different method, so unfortunately there is no right way to prepare for the HSK. One of our personal favorites is this comprehensive guide from FluentU, and there are of course the many many online resources that can help you study.

Can I read in Chinese if I am not HSK 6?

You might feel that reaching the top levels of HSK is still far away. However, you would like to already start actually using your Chinese for something else than just doing homework and giving directions to the taxi driver. We’ve recently started reading articles by The Chairman’s Bao as a way of using our Chinese for something more entertaining than homework. The articles are all based on HSK levels, so already from HSK 3 you can start reading real articles about current events. You’ll be surprised at how much you can actually understand when the article is using simple words and grammar to cover various topics.


Another option is to start reading the things around you; the subway signs, the menus, the billboards. There are characters everywhere and you probably recognize more of them than you’d expect. You can also use the dictionary apps to turn your subway ride into a treasure hunt – find a new character every day, translate it with the app and add it to your personal list of characters.


What is included in the HSK exam?

As stated above, the HSK includes listening, reading and writing sections. Depending on the HSK level you are taking, you will have increasingly tough questions and the exam duration will also be longer. Test your level here to see if you are ready for the exam. You can see everything that is included in each level below:


HSK levels


To get samples from previous test, have a look here and here.

To read more on how to pass the HSK, check out our article on “Passing the HSK” or for study aids check out our article on the “5 Most Common Mistakes when Learning Chinese

Good luck and remember to let us know when you pass your HSK so we can join in the celebrations!