New HSK Test: Changes and Updates You’ve Got to Know about HSK 3.0

new HSK

So you were in the middle of preparing for the HSK test, all of a sudden someone informed you that the HSK is about to get a complete revamp…thus you went from pillar to post searching for news on the new HSK, yet the discrepant information out there left you even more confused…well, congratulations on finding ImproveMandarin – we’ve taken a good hard look at the proposed new HSK (officially referred to as HSK 3.0) and we’ve got you covered! In this guide, you’ll learn all the important changes and updates revolving around the HSK in 2021 and beyond.

By the end of this new HSK guide, you’ll have a clear idea of:

  • what changes will be made to the current HSK
  • whether the new HSK will be harder or not
  • when the new HSK is coming out
  • what the HSK test will be like in 2021, 2022, 2023 and 2024
  • whether you should take the HSK now or wait for the new HSK  
  • how to study and prepare for the new HSK

But first, some information about the HSK itself.

What is the HSK?

HSK stands for “Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi”, the Pinyin romanization for “汉语水平考试”, which literally means “Chinese Level Test” but is usually translated to “Chinese Proficiency Test”. The test is organized by Hanban (汉办), an affiliation of the Ministry of Education of China that’s also in charge of the Confucius Institutes worldwide.

HSK is primarily used by Chinese universities as part of the admissions process for international students, but anyone who wants to assess their Chinese proficiency or need to certify their mastery of Chinese can take the test.

Old HSK and Current HSK: A Brief History

The HSK test was initially created in 1990 as a way to measure the ability of China’s 55 minority ethnic groups (e.g. Tibetan, Uyghur) in using Chinese in their academic and day-to-day lives (yes, they too learn Chinese as a second language).

China ethnic groups

In 1995, HSK became an international test for students hoping to attend universities in China. Looking at a student’s HSK reports helped admission officers decide if that student had a high enough level of Chinese to handle the course load at their school.

The HSK has gone through two periods since its creation: old and current.

Old HSK (HSK 1.0)

The original HSK, used from 1990 to 2009, consisted of three sub-tests: HSK Basic, HSK Elementary-Intermediate, and HSK Advanced.

The old HSK tests mainly aimed towards Asian students. A scoring system from level 1 to level 11 was used, with level 11 being nearly impossible to pass without an Asian language background. The test was often criticized by western learners for being impractical and using too many obscure historical and cultural references.

Current HSK (HSK 2.0)

In late 2009, the HSK underwent huge revisions to conform to the Chinese Proficiency Standards released in 2007: new test patterns were introduced, vocabulary requirement was substantially lowered, grading system was re-designed, and writing started to have a much heavier weighting. The test was released as the “HSK 2.0” in 2010, which is the version of the exam still being used today.

In the current HSK system, the test taker’s mastery of Chinese is measured through six levels (six independent tests), from HSK 1 (basic) to HSK 6 (advanced).

HSK 2.0 gained great success for its lowered requirements and gentle learning curve. According to the test organizer, in 2019 alone, over 800,000 people took the HSK test from 1229 testing centers across the globe.

What Is the Chinese Proficiency Standards?

Unlike HSK, Chinese Proficiency Standards is not a language test or certification itself, but rather an assessment frame within which all Chinese language curriculums and tests function when pinpointing the courses or test scores to corresponding proficiency levels.  

The Chinese Proficiency Standards being used today was established by Hanban back in 2007. It comprises 5 proficiency levels from level 1 (basic ) to level 5 (advanced). The standards are further outlined in the book ‘Chinese Language Proficiency Scales for Speakers of Other Languages’ (国际汉语能力标准).

Chinese Language Proficiency Scales for Speakers of Other Languages

“Why is the Chinese Proficiency Standards important?”, you ask.

Well, knowing Chinese Proficiency Standards gives you a baseline for understanding the HSK. The below chart shows the correspondence between the Chinese Proficiency Standards and HSK levels.

Chinese Proficiency StandardsHSK Levels
Level 5HSK 6
HSK 5
Level 4HSK 4
Level 3HSK 3
Level 2HSK 2
Level 1HSK 1

Since the Chinese Proficiency Standards was not created solely for the HSK test (it’s the basis for all Chinese language education and testing), its proficiency scales do not have a one to one equivalency to HSK levels.

New HSK 3.0: What’s Happening?

Is there is a new HSK test coming out?

Yes, it’s official. Here’s what’s happening to HSK:

In May 2020, Chinese Testing International – the Hanban-funded organization that designs and administers the HSK tests – announced via Twitter that the Chinese Proficiency Standards will usher in a new change and the HSK test is about to be reformed

Furthermore, they posted a chart showing this change (named “a hybrid paradigm of “Three Stages and Nine Levels”) they’ll bring to the Chinese Proficiency Standards. (We paste the chart below)

new HSK anouncement


Here’s the English translation in case you can’t read it in Chinese.  

Chart 1: New Paradigm of Three Stages and Nine Levels
Advanced LevelsLevel 9Note: Within levels 7-9, there will be no specific quantitative indicators for each level, and they will be integrated.
Level 8
Level 7
Intermediate LevelsLevel 6Note: Within levels 1-6, a set of quantitative indicators including the number of syllables, characters, words, grammar points, etc, will be applied to each level. The standards for each level are relatively independent.
Level 5
Level 4
Elementary LevelsLevel 3
Level 2
Level 1

To sum up: the Chinese Proficiency Standards are changing, and the HSK will need to follow suit.

What’s “Three Stages and Nine Levels” Exactly?

As you can see from the chart above, the new Chinese Proficiency Standards will ditch the existing 5-level scale and incorporate a brand new 3-stage-9-level scale, aiming to describe learners’ Chinese abilities more accurately.

In this new system, levels 1-3 are categorized into the elementary stage, level 4-6 are categorized into the intermediate stage, and level 7-9 are categorized into the advanced stage.  

But here comes the question. What do you need to know to reach each of the stages and levels in the new proficiency standards?

Through the link given in the tweet, we found the exact information on the “quantitative indicators for each level” mentioned in the first chart.

Three Stages and Nine Levels

Here’s the English interpretation.

Chart 2: Overview of Quantitative Indicators (Set) for Three Stages and Nine Levels
SyllablesCharactersWordsGrammar
AdvancedLeve 7-9+202/11001200/3000+5636/11092+148/572
IntermediateLevel 6+86/908+300/1800+1140/5456+67/424
Level 5+98/822+300/1500+1071/4316+71/357
Level 4+116/724+300/1200+1000/3245+76/286
ElementaryLevel 3+140/608+300/900+973/2245+81/210
Level 2+199/468+300/600+772/1272+81/129
Level 126930050048
Total1100300011092572

As you can see, a set of four quantitative indicators will be applied to each level. The bar raises as your level progresses.

For instance, if you want to get to Level 6 of the Intermediate Stage, you’ll need to learn 908 syllables, 1,800 characters, 5,456 words, and 424 grammar points. If you want to reach Level 9 of the Advanced Stage, then you’ll have to master all 1,100 syllables, 3,000 characters, 11092 words, and 572 grammar points.

Why is HSK Changing?

I know what you’re thinking: the current HSK seems to be working pretty well, so why does it have to change all over again?

Well, part of the reason is that the HSK needs to line up with the proposed new Chinese Proficiency Standards, but the fundamental reason is that the current HSK levels don’t conform to any of the international standards, and they do not accurately reflect the levels of fluency that they were purported to correspond with.

HSK vs CEFR

Hanban has long been claiming that the current HSK levels have a one to one equivalency to the CEFR levels (established by the Council of Europe, CEFR is the world’s most influential standard for describing language ability): HSK’s level 1-6 to CEFR’s A1 (beginner)-C2 (proficient), but this proved to be a huge overestimate, and the statement was refused by CEFR on multiple occasions.

Basically, if you’re at level 5 on the CEFR scale, you should be already proficient in the language and will have few issues using it. But the content tested in HSK Level 5 is intermediate at most – for starters, it only contained a vocabulary of 2,500 words.

Take HSK Level 6 for another example, the vocabulary requirement for HSK 6 is 5000 words. But we can all agree that this is an extremely low estimate of the vocabulary needed to be considered at a “near-native” level.

We’ve written a specific article comparing the current HSK levels with CEFR (you can read here). Here’s a quick glimpse of what we’ve come to.

Chinese Proficiency StandardsHSK LevelsEstimated CEFR Level
Level 5HSK 6C1- (upper-intermediate)
HSK 5B2- (intermediate)
Level 4HSK 4B1 (low-intermediate)
Level 3HSK 3A2 (elementary)
Level 2HSK 2A1+ (basic)
Level 1HSK 1A1- (newbie)

You can be certain that in the new HSK system, the levels will be rebalanced to better match the CEFR scale and reflect a student’s proficiency, giving the HSK improved weighting and caliber on the international stage.

New HSK Levels: Three Stages and Nine Levels?

So, we’ve established the fact that the Chinese Proficiency Standards – the basis for HSK test – is about to change, but what does it mean for the HSK reform? Will the new HSK adopt the same “Three Stages and Nine Levels” paradigm? If so, will it use the same quantitative indicators for each level? More importantly, when will the new test come out? 2021, 2022, or maybe later?

As Chinese Testing International has not released any new information or comments on their website and social media since posting the original tweet, we decided to reach out to Hanban (Confucius Institute Headquarters) directly to inquire how HSK is going to change, whether they’ve made any actual progress on the new HSK, and when the new tests will be released.

Here’s how they responded.

The New Chinese Proficiency Standards, renamed as 'Chinese Proficiency Standards in International Chinese Education' (汉语国际教育汉语水平等级标准) is currently being reviewed. It needs to be approved by the State Language Commission (国家语言文字工作委员会) before it can be officially published. Once it’s published, the new HSK will then be adjusted on the foundation of the current HSK exams to meet the new standards. We’ll keep you posted!

Hanban

All right, looks like Hanban wants to play it safe by not revealing more details on the new HSK until the new proficiency standards get approved.

Luckily, we obtained some very useful information regarding the new HSK from three other credible sources, namely the Confucius Institute of Barcelona which is run by Hanban, the official HSK testing center in Singapore, and Beijing Language and Culture University Press – publisher of the ‘HSK Standard Course’ textbook series.

Here’s what they know.

The project “Chinese Proficiency Standards in International Chinese Education” is mostly completed. The “new standards” is scheduled to be released in late 2020. It will be based on the paradigm of three levels and nine stages. To this end, Chinese Testing International will expand the HSK levels by developing the advanced HSK test (levels 7-9), with the premise of guaranteeing the stability of HSK levels 1-6. The advanced HSK test is mainly designed for Sinology researchers, scholars and students that specialize in Chinese language and literature, as well as for advanced students of various majors coming to study in China. A single test will be implemented for levels 7-9, and the test score will determine whether level 7, 8, or 9 is obtained. The advanced HSK test (level 7-9) is scheduled to be released in 2021.

The Confucius Institute of Barcelona

We have not been informed about the reforms to the HSK system yet. According to our information, the HSK test level will remain in Levels 1-6 in the near future.

HSK Testing Center in Singapore (Crestar)

The Chinese Proficiency Standards are currently in review. The HSK will change to 9 levels, but the new 9-level system will be away for at least 2 years.

Beijing Language and Culture University Press

By piecing together all the information, we are now able to have a clearer-than-ever picture of the whole new HSK situation, and where the HSK reform is heading.

First, Let’s circle back to the questions we asked earlier and give you the definitive answers here.

Will the new HSK adopt the same “Three Stages and Nine Levels” paradigm?

Yes, it will adopt the same paradigm to align with the 9-level scale to be used in the new Chinese Proficiency Standards. In other words, the new HSK will have 9 levels.

Will the new HSK levels use the same quantitative indicators as those specified in the new Chinese Proficiency Standards?

Not necessarily. No comment has been given by Hanban on this to this point. To our understanding, a different set of requirements (e.g. number of characters, words students must know for each level) could be applied to the new HSK. They could be set lower than the actual Chinese Proficiency Standards to guarantee the stability of existing HSK levels 1-6.  

Now, let’s take a look at when the new HSK is coming out.

HSK Reform Timeline (Presumably)

Phase 1: Drafting New Chinese Proficiency Standards (completed)

A new 3-stage-9-level scale is proposed by Hanban. Quantitative indicators for each level are detailed. New HSK will be based on these new standards.

Phase 2: Reviewing New Chinese Proficiency Standards (working on it)

New standards are being reviewed and pending on approval by the State Language Commission of China. Revision may be made if necessary.

Phase 3: Releasing Advanced HSK Test for Levels 7-9 (scheduled in 2021)

Once the new standards are approved, a single advanced HSK test for levels 7-9 will shortly be added to the current HSK system. Meanwhile, no substantial change will be made to the existing HSK tests (levels 1-6) in at least 2ish years.

Phase 4: Rolling Out New HSK Level 1-6 Tests (likely in 2023-2024)

The new version of the HSK Level 1-6 tests are likely to be released in 2023-2024. It would take 1-2 years to completely roll out worldwide. Current HSK Level 1-6 tests could coexist.

Phase 5: Phasing out Current HSK Tests (likely in 2024-2025)

Current HSK tests will be phased out completely by the new system. Until then, old HSK test scores would still be valid for 2 years for applying to Chinese universities.

A point of reference is that it took Hanban three years to roll out the current HSK after the first edition of the Chinese Proficiency Standards was released in 2007, and that transition was made from the “hard” HSK to the “easy” HSK, without much curriculum overhaul and teacher training involved.

New HSK Levels 7-9: What Will Be the Test Like?

One of the biggest issues with the current HSK system is that its highest level – HSK 6 does not actually correspond to the high proficiency level (or “near-native” fluency level) that the test organizer claims.

We’ve talked to many test-takers and Chinese students (read here, here, and here), and they all agreed that there is a big gap between HSK Level 6 and total proficiency in Chinese. In fact, we found HSK 6 only corresponds to a middle school Chinese exam for 6-7th graders in terms of difficulty level.

local middle school Chinese exam
an extract from a middle school Chinese exam for 9th graders in Ningbo, China

To this end, we believe the upcoming HSK levels 7-9 will be much harder than the current HSK 6.

We expect the advanced exam to test the ability to understand longer, more complicated, and abstract materials, such as articles from Chinese textbooks for college students, Chinese novels and magazines, extracts from Chinese news and media, etc. Besides, knowledge of traditional Chinese expressions (e.g. chengyu) and classical Chinese grammatical structures used in modern formal Chinese (e.g. lectures, speeches) could be included and tested as well in HSK 7-9.

New HSK Levels 1-6: Will They Be More Difficult?

Will the HSK difficulty increase? Not necessarily.

A common misconception is that the new HSK will be more difficult because of the higher requirements (for instance, many believe that one has to learn 500 words, instead of the current 150, for the new Level 1 test. And potentially, knowledge of syllables will also be required), but this is just pure speculation that’s never been confirmed by Hanban.

It’s easy to mistaken the new Chinese Proficiency Standards for the new HSK requirements, especially when they’ll both have nine levels, however, these are two very different concepts.  

The quantitative indicators (the number of syllables, character, words, and grammar points) specified in the new Chinese Proficiency Standards are simply overall guidelines for international Chinese education, that is, Chinese teaching, curriculum design, testing in Chinese schools. A different set of requirements could be applied to the new HSK. Though the requirements haven’t been announced officially, we know one thing for sure: just as the current HSK does not test students specifically on grammar, there certainly won’t be any specific syllable test on the new HSK! It’ll remain a 100% written test.

Bottom Line: HSK Levels don’t have to match Chinese Proficiency Standards exactly.

LevelCurrent HSK Proficiency StandardsNew HSK
CharactersWordsCharactersWordsCharactersWords
9//300011092TBDTBD
8//
7//
62,5005,0001,8005,456TBDTBD
51,5002,5001,5004,316TBDTBD
41,0001,2001,2003,245TBDTBD
36006009002,245TBDTBD
2300(optional)3006001,272TBDTBD
1300(optional)150300500TBDTBD

Even if the future requirements turn out to be an exact match to the proposed Chinese Proficiency Standards, the new HSK tests won’t necessarily be harder than the current ones. Take HSK 6 for example, you might only need to learn 1,800 characters in the future, whereas you have to master 2,500 for the test now!

New HSK Test: Should You Be Concerned?

HSK reform

It all boils down to this question: should you be concerned about the new HSK test?

Well, there is absolutely nothing you need to worry about.

On the contrary, you should be glad that the HSK is undergoing reform. In the current system, you would nearly be done at HSK 5 to 6, which is far too insufficient to be considered a proficient level or for studying degree programs based on Chinese. The upcoming HSK 7-9 levels will render a perfect roadmap for you to reach total proficiency.

And if you’re still at the beginning of your Chinese learning journey, take it easy!  The new HSK tests will be a better tool to measure your progress and will reflect your level of fluency more accurately.

And if your Chinese-learning goal does not align with the new HSK scale, or you don’t need an academic or professional qualification, you can always ignore the test. A language certificate should never be seen as an end goal, but rather a check-in.

FAQs about New HSK

New HSK or HSK 3.0 refers to the proposed third version of the Chinese Proficiency Test that’s currently in review. Once the new HSK has fully rolled out, it would replace the current HSK known as HSK 2.0.

The new HSK will have 9 levels: HSK 1, HSK 2, HSK 3, HSK 4, HSK 5, HSK 6, HSK 7, HSK 8, and HSK 9. HSK 1 will be the lowest level in terms of language ability and HSK 9 will be the highest.

So far, no specific timing has been given by the test organizer for when the changes will hit tests. But based on our research, a single advanced HSK test (for levels 7-9) is scheduled to be released in 2021 after the new Chinese Proficiency Standards are approved by the State Language Commission of China. New HSK Level 1-6 tests are likely to come out in 2023-2024, and it would take 1-2 years for them to completely roll out worldwide.

The HSK levels will be expanded from six to nine. A single advanced HSK test will be implemented for levels 7-9, and the test score will determine whether level 7, 8, or 9 is obtained. The advanced HSK test will aim towards Sinology researchers, scholars, students that specialize in Chinese language and literature, and advanced students of various majors coming to study in China.

Besides, the new HSK system might adopt a new set of requirements for each level (e.g. number of characters, words students must know) to line up with the new Chinese Proficiency Standards. A more gradual progression between each level and a closer correlation to the CEFR scale can be expected.

The new HSK will remain a 100% written test. No substantial change will be made to the existing HSK tests (levels 1-6) in at least 2ish years to guarantee its stability.

Given that the new 9-level system will be away for at least 2 years, the HSK requirements for Chinese universities are unlikely to change anytime soon.

Unless you’ve already reached the advanced level in Chinese and looking to challenge yourself in an even harder test than the current HSK 6, it’s not worth waiting for the new HSK. In fact, the new HSK tests for Levels 1-6 won’t be released until 2023-2024. Even then, there might be no drastic changes made to the tests, so you might as well take the HSK now.

New HSK: 1-Minute Summary

  • HSK is based on a language scale named Chinese Proficiency Standards.
  • The Chinese Proficiency Standards are now changing. HSK will also have to change to line up.
  • A single advanced HSK test (levels 7-9) will be added to the existing HSK system in 2021 or later.
  • There will be no change to the current HSK tests (Levels 1-6) in 2021. And they are unlikely to change at all in 2022 either.
  • New versions of HSK Levels 1-6 might be released in 2023-2024 and it would take 1-2 years to completely roll out worldwide.
  • Until then, all current HSK results are still valid for 2 years if you intend to use them to apply to Chinese universities.
  • All requirements you can find online for the new HSK (e.g. number of characters, words you must know) are pure speculation. Nothing is official until the test organizer makes it official.

Future Updates

new HSK updates

We’ve put together all the information you need to know so far about the upcoming new HSK in this post to save you all the research.

And we’ll always continue to update this post with the latest information, including new HSK test timing, formats, and learning resources. Make sure you book this page and stay tuned!