HSK Meaning: What Does HSK Stand For?

Are you taking the HSK and looking for some background information on the test? What does HSK stand for anyway? Do these letters mean anything?

In this article, we explain the HSK meaning, give a brief history of the exam and its name, and go over all the other HSK acronyms you need to know before you take the exam.

What Does HSK Stand For?

What is HSK

The acronym 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 HSK is a standardized test that measures a test taker’s mastery of Mandarin Chinese. HSK scores are primarily used by universities in China as part of the admissions process for non-native Chinese speakers. But anyone who wants to assess their Chinese proficiency or needs to demonstrate a mastery of Chinese for professional purposes can take the HSK.

A Brief History of the HSK and Its Name

Below is a short history of the HSK and the different names it has been known.

From its launch in 1990, the tests official name was Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, which was commonly abbreviated to HSK. The test was initially created to assess the ability of China’s 55 ethnic minorities (e.g. Tibetan, Uyghur) in using Chinese in their academic and day-to-day lives (yes, they too learn Chinese as a second language). 

In 1995, HSK became an international test. It was thus mandatory for foreign students hoping to attend schools in China where Mandarin Chinese was the language of instruction. 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.

HSK 1.0

The original HSK from 1990 to 2009 had three sub-tests: HSK Basic, HSK Elementary-Intermediate, and HSK Advanced. It used a scoring system from level 1 to level 11, 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.

HSK 2.0

In late 2009, the HSK underwent huge revision: new test patterns were introduced, vocabulary requirement was lowered, the grading system was re-designed, and writing started to have a much heavier weighting. The test was released as the ‘new HSK’ in 2010, which is the current version of the exam still being used today.

The current HSK consists of 6 levels: HSK 1, HSK 2, HSK 3, HSK 4, HSK 5, HSK 6. HSK 1 is the lowest level in terms of ability and HSK 6 is the highest. With practicality as its major focus, this updated HSK is now a lot easier than the old exam (the current HSK 6 corresponds to level 8-9 in the old HSK scale). In the meantime, it has an increased emphasis on integrative skills and using multiple skills at a time to answer a question. 

Today, the HSK is administered in over 150 countries and is taken by over 800,000 candidates annually, with HSK 4 being the most popular according to the test organizer.

HSK 3.0

In 2020, Chinese Testing International, the organization that designs the test, announced three new levels (7-9) would be introduced in 2022 as part of a new HSK system. Beta versions of a single advanced HSK test for levels 7-9 have since been made available for testing, but they are not ready for full release yet. (If you are curious about the changes, here are the new HSK updates)

What Are Other Common HSK Abbreviations?

Now that you know what HSK means, it’s time to discover the other acronyms in the HSK world! Below are some of the other common abbreviations related to Chinese proficiency tests that you should be aware of.

  • Hanban: Hanban (汉办), also known as Confucius Institute Headquarters, is the Pinyin abbreviation for the Office of Chinese Language Council International. The organization, which is affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education, designs, administers and scores the HSK. In July 2020, Hanban changed its name to CLEC (the Center for Language Education and Cooperation).
  • HSK iBT: What does iBT stand for in HSK? iBT is the abbreviation for ‘internet-based test’. The internet-based HSK, or HSK iBT, is the more favored version of the HSK among test takers. The HSK iBT combines the listening, reading, and writing sections into a single exam that is taken on the computer. Therefore, it’s also referred to as the computer-based HSK.
  • HSK PBT: The paper-based HSK, or HSK PBT, is taken by people in areas or testing centers where the HSK iBT isn’t available. HSK PBT is identical to HSK iBT in terms of the test structure, content, and scoring criteria, it’s just that you need to write down characters physically on the test paper with a pen or pencil. (Should you take HSK iBT or HSK PBT? Compare the pros and cons here)
  • HSKK: The acronym is very close to HSK (note the extra ‘K’). HSKK stands for ‘Hanyu Shuiping Kouyu Kaoshi’, which means ‘Chinese Proficiency Spoken Test’. As the name suggests, HSKK is a standardized spoken exam that certifies a candidate’s Chinese speaking skills. HSKK comprises 3 sub-tests: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced, all of which are conducted in the form of audio recording. Like HSK (which is a 100% written exam), HSKK is also produced and overseen by Hanban (now CLEC). The two exams can be taken independently at any level.  
  • BCT: Business Chinese Test, or BCT, is another Chinese language proficiency test developed by Hanban for foreign learners engaged in business activities. The BCT consists of two relatively independent tests: BCT (Listening & Reading) and BCT (Speaking & Writing). The candidates can sit for one or both of them at a time. Unlike the HSK, which is used mostly by people hoping to attend university or graduate school in China, the BCT is primarily used by employers to test the Chinese skills of potential employees.
  • YCT: YCT stands for ‘Youth Chinese Test’. This test, created by Hanban, is specifically designed for primary and middle school students. The YCT is also divided into two independent tests – spoken and written to assess youngsters’ abilities to use Chinese in their daily and academic lives.
  • TOCFL: Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language (TOCFL) is the standardized Chinese proficiency test in Taiwan. The TOCFL is less popular than the HSK, and it is only required in some Taiwanese universities and companies (for political reasons, TOCFL is not recognized in Mainland China). The TOCFL test is known to be more difficult than the HSK (while the HSK 6 requires the knowledge of 5000 words, the advanced level of the TOCFL test requires the knowledge of 8000). You can choose either simplified or traditional Chinese characters when registering for the test.

Recap: What Does HSK Mean?

HSK stands for Hanyu (Chinese) Shuiping (level) Kaoshi (test), meaning ‘Chinese Level Test’ or ‘Chinese Proficiency Test’.

The HSK was created in 1990 as a way to measure the Chinese skills of non-native speakers and also Chinese national minorities hoping to attend a school where classes were taught in Mandarin Chinese. Over the years, the HSK has undergone significant revision to become more practical and realistic. The current post-2009 HSK is a lot easier than the old pre-2009 HSK. The HSK can be taken either on a computer (HSK iBT) or paper (HSK PBT). There are lots of acronyms associated with the Chinese proficiency test, and knowing the key ones can help you stay organized and understand the exam and what it tests better.

What’s Next?

what's next

So now you know the story behind the HSK, are you ready to take the test? Read our guide to learn the nine simple steps to register for the HSK so you can get the process started!

Not sure how the HSK test works? We have written the world’s most useful guide to HSK for you, covering everything you need to know about the exam!

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