Back to the HSK (2)Written by Julen Madariaga on October 13th, 2009
I am back to Shanghai with some interesting anecdotes and some mildly funny pictures of Japan. Unfortunately, I will not be able to post any of that, because this week I am busy with work trips in China, and especially because this is the HSK week. It is just as well, I guess, after all this is not Japanyouren, and there are funnier travel bloggers out there if you are looking for a laugh.
Before I disappear for a week into my studying den, let me explain you again this business of the HSK. It is short for 汉语水平考试，or Chinese Level Exam, and it is the official standard to measure your level of mandarin, accepted by all universities in the mainland. It is also a very crazy exam, designed to squeeze out of the examinee’s brains as much linguistic information as possible in 3 hours, and then put it down in measurable statistical terms.
As it happens, the HSK is an exam that does not mainly measure your level of Chinese. It measures your determination, endurance and sangfroid, and your faith in a better life after the bell. The good side of it, apart from hardening your soul, is that it gives you a good taste of the ultracompetitive Chinese education system and their university entrance exam. It is even reminiscent of the 科举考试, the old imperial examination to select the bureaucracy, which famously caused some of the candidates to lose their wits and become heavenly kings. For a foreigner who is serious (deranged) enough to try to understand China, this experience is essential.
But back to the facts: This Saturday 17th is the HSK advanced, and I am going to fight for a level 9, out of 11 possible levels. I need to get this degree desperately, for the sole honourable objective of beating my own record. This is the Olympic spirit.
My practice essays with thoughts on the Four Books
Here are some details of the exam: the reading section contains text with a total of over 4,000+ characters, the equivalent of some 10 pages in a standard format novel, and on that text you have to answer 15 questions (not choose a,b,c,d, but actually answer with a sentence). There is a total of… 15 minutes for this part. I tested with a native Chinese friend and that is the time she took just to read the text at normal speed.
The essay writing is another scary part, because you get so used to typing with the computer that when it comes to handwriting characters you don’t even know where to start. At least here you do get 30 minutes for an essay of 400-600 characters, so you actually have the time to read what you are writing, and to consider if you really want to express your own point of view in an exam which contains exercises like:
“The concept of scientific development leads our people towards a more ——- society” ( a-harmonious, b-harmonic, c-harmonium d-hormonal)
This example is not exactly literal, I am quoting from memory. The point is the HSK has a strong Beijing flavour, and some of the phrases are taken directly from CPC handbooks and the helmsmen’s theories. In a way, it feels like the Four Books of the imperial examinations all over again: the Thought of Mao Zedong, the Theory of the 3 Represents, the Concept of Scientific Development… As the old saying goes: All things they’ve changed, and nothing has changed.