What does your HSK level really tell about your Mandarin skills?

Many people taking the HSK exams share the same experience. When they’ve reached HSK 4 level, they think they’ve arrived. But once they turn on the Chinese news, they still don’t understand what’s being said. So what do HSK exams really tell about your proficiency in Mandarin?

The HSK merry-go-round

The HSK merry-go-round or why you shouldn't be focused on HSK results only.

The story doesn’t stop with HSK 4. Because as soon as people realize they’re not as proficient as they thought, they more often than not sign up for the next level and enter the HSK merry-go-round. HSK 5 is supposed to get you to “professional proficiency”:

Test takers who are able to pass the HSK (Level V) can read Chinese newspapers and magazines, enjoy Chinese films and plays, and give a full-length speech in Chinese.

(HSK 5 language skills description)

But can they really? I passed HSK 5 in 2017 with 208 points (out of 300) and even though my score could have been worse, I didn’t doubt one second that I had passed the test only by the skin of my teeth. I could hardly read a Chinese newspaper, let alone “give a full-length speech”.

HSK 5 was supposed to equal C1 language proficiency which is almost native-like fluency. It’s surprising how many people who come this “far” actually feel their grasp of the language is insufficient.

HSK Standard Course 6a SET - Textbook +Workbook (Chinese and English Edition)
The HSK Standard Course series.

So what else to do than prepare for the “final stage”? HSK 6 was until 2021 the highest language level you can achieve in Mandarin. Now you can knock yourself out even further by aiming for HSK 9. But that’s pretty much the end of the line. There’s nothing beyond that.

Beating HSK vs real life Mandarin skills

How come then that many people who passed the highest exams come to feel that their level of competence still isn’t that “significant” and isn’t actually “enough”?

Then I spent this year reaching HSK 6 level which is pretty much where I am now. And to be honest I still feel like my Chinese is not good enough.

Experienced learner after passing the HSK 6 exam

The funny thing with HSK is that you can completely crush the higher level exams and still do relatively poor at real life communication. For example, you might be a master at the HSK listening part, but you still don’t get a single word of the taxi driver talking to you, because he speaks relatively fast and with a slight accent.

It reminds me of Chinese students who got the highest grades on their English tests, but can’t use the language at all in the real world. They for example can’t keep up with a real conversation and answer “yes” to open questions – BUT they’re very successful at passing the exams.

HSK prepares you for HSK

Writing HSK is a skill on its own I’ve written before. One thing is essential to understand: The HSK is tailored to the classical classroom style of teaching still very common in China. In a typical HSK preparation class the teacher will focus on vocabulary and grammar points and use 95% of the speaking time hammering in vital HSK stuff. The rest of the class is usually dedicated to making as many mock exams as possible – to get you fit for the exam. NOT FOR REAL LIFE.

What does your HSK level tell about your Mandarin proficiency?

On the other hand, I don’t want to trivialize HSK. Most people who pass the national standardized test – especially the higher levels – have come a long way, others never make it. In my eyes, HSK 6 is impressive. It means you can read complex Chinese texts and write a great number of characters to compose an essay.

But there’s a problem with being HSK-focused only. The reason is this: studying (solely) for HSK will only make you a star at taking the HSK exams, while in fact you could be spending your time far more effectively.

Developing real life Mandarin skills involves a lot more. Like learning to cope with regional accents, slang, formal and informal language. Or learning to deal with different “genres” of Chinese – comedies, modern and classic literature, poetry, newspaper articles, scientific articles, emails and bureaucratic documents. HSK only provides a basic framework which proves insufficient once outside the classroom more often than not.

What Does Your HSK Level Say About Your Chinese Skills?

I’ve concluded for myself that the HSK level is not very indicative when it comes to concrete communication skills. In other words, you can pass the higher HSK exams and still not be able to write business emails in Chinese or conduct a job interview. Often, such skills are much more valuable in everyday life than solving than the typical HSK exam tasks.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try…

So if you don’t need the certificate, should you still take the exam? It all depends on your situation. You should probably spare yourself the trouble, but then again, why not give it a try to see where you’re at. Especially when your self-studying and you don’t have any other points of reference. Maybe you do better than you guess!

Although by now it’s obvious I’m not a big HSK-fan and try to see HSK for what it is, I gotta admit I’ve been tempted to take the HSK 6 exam myself. Mainly to have a goal to focus on and test my progress since I took HSK 5, some years ago. Back then my biggest problem was reading speed. My reading was so slow that I couldn’t finish the questions in time. I’ve been working on that by reading more often and more extensively, but will it be enough to survive the HSK 6 reading part?

My HSK score, HSK 4 and 5 (2016-2017)
My HSK score (4 and 5): writing HSK 4 I didn’t have any problems with reading. Taking HSK 5 though, I struggled against time. Clearly the processing power of my Hanzi brain was lacking.

You only know if you try.

What are your thoughts on taking HSK exams? How does your HSK level relate to your actual Mandarin skills? Feel free to leave a comment below. For more updates from Kaohongshu follow me on X.

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13 thoughts on “What does your HSK level really tell about your Mandarin skills?

  1. I took the HSK in 2008. Back then, it was a different system. There were 11 levels separated in 3 tiers. You would take the exam for one of the tiers and your grade decided which level you got. For example, the intermediate tier, the one I did, was for levels 4 to 8 if I remember correctly. Level 6 was deemed enough to attend college classes in Chinese. I got level 7. Then the whole system changed, I think to make it comparable to the CEFR levels. What everybody thought of the change was that the exigency level had been shamelessly lowered, maybe to encourage foreigners to study Chinese. But there is no way in hell that HSK 6 equals a C2, hahaha. Back then almost no one could get level 11, now getting HSK 6 is very much attainable. Though I have never tried myself, hahaha. I never needed the HSK certificate for anything, employers have enough with hearing you speak. And the thought of having to memorize lists of words puts me off it completely xD

    PS. The trick for the yuedu section is to not read the text, but read the questions and then scan the text to find the answers! At least this is the trick that teachers suggested back in my prehistoric times of Chinese studying xD

    1. Yes, I heard it was way more difficult back then, like almost impossible to reach the highest level. But I’ve never seen an actual exam. I think like you said they wanted to make it more accessible for foreigners by simplifying the system.

      But that has its problems: I couldn’t agree more to your point that the new HSK levels never ever match the CEFR levels. HSK 4 for example sounds like upper intermediate, in fact – I’d say so at least – it’s closer to A2/B1. This is probably closer to the truth:

      HSK 1: – (Note that HSK 1 is actually nothing)
      HSK 2: CEFR A1.1
      HSK 3: CEFR A1
      HSK 4: CEFR A2
      HSK 5: CEFR B1
      HSK 6: CEFR B2

      In that respect, Hanban makes it look “easier” than it actually is to reach C1 or C2 level and they kind of give you a false sense of achievement.

      I still think – but that might be sort of natural as you progress – that the gap between HSK 4 and HSK 5, and again between 5 and 6, is much wider in terms of vocabulary, grammar, reading and writing.

      C2 is a different level all together – maybe we have to admit that there is no test for that. In the end, it’s a matter of definition. What can you expect from a C2-level, near-native speaker? Citing Tang poems, holding a lecture about the origins of chopsticks? I don’t know.

      The one thing HSK doesn’t test is speaking. (There’s separate exam for that). So your HSK score doesn’t tell anything about your oral command of the language. But in the end, that’s what counts the most. For the majority of people anyway. If I were the Chinese employer, I’d want to hear you speak Mandarin, doesn’t matter how high your HSK score is.^^

    1. Hi Miishuangmu,

      292 is an excellent score. In terms of points you’re definitely ready to take on the next level. Have you tried an HSK 5 mock exam yet? I’d suggest you check how you do. Personally I found the gap between 4 and 5 bigger than I expected, but many others thinks it’s not such a big deal, especially for those in China who are taking Mandarin courses anyway and get lots of language input. I don’t know what situation you’re in and how much time you have available. My feeling after I did HSK 4 was that if I already had come this far, I should also try HSK 5, even though I was working full-time back then. But HSK is not the only way to challenge yourself : )

      1. Hi HongShu,
        Thank you for the advice and confidence. I think I am ready for HSK5. I have also heard that there is an obvious gap of differences between both. Nevertheless I will try. As for the mock exam, I can download from the website so no issue. I am wondering how relevant is cambridge chinese exam, such as O-level & A-level Chinese exam. May I have your thought?

        1. I’m not really familiar with the Cambridge International AS and A Level Chinese test. I looked it up and the syllabus describing the exam (https://www.cambridgeinternational.org/Images/420666-2020-2022-syllabus.pdf) makes it look rather difficult. To my knowledge HSK is the most widely accepted Chinese test in and outside China (Taiwan has the TOCFL though) at this point. But I can’t think of any good reason why Cambridge qualifications shouldn’t be accepted and valued by universities or employers.

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