Who is Dashan?

Who is Dashan (大山)? Well he’s actually the most famous Westerner in China – quite literally.

His real name is Mark Rowswell. He’s a Canadian that studied Chinese at university and went to China in the 80s on a scholarship to continue his studies. Through a series of fortunate circumstances, he ended up on TV and was watched by hundreds of millions of Chinese viewers, most of whom had never seen a white person speak such good Mandarin before (or at all).

He ended up embracing this and continued perfecting his Mandarin and doing media appearances. To this day, he is still the most skilled Western Mandarin speaker most Chinese people have or will ever hear. I’ve had native speakers tell me that he’s the only person where, if they close their eyes while listening to him, they cannot tell he’s a foreigner.

Why he’s interesting

  • Probably the most skilled Mandarin speaking by a non-native speaker that you will hear.
  • He has a unique perspective and interesting views on issues in China and the relationship between China and the West.
  • He’s funny! He likes to do a lot of comedy: stand-up, crosstalk , etc. For example:
    Dashan - Solo xiangsheng - Eng subtitles

More info

My first experience with the HSKK Beginner/Basic exam

This weekend I took both the HSK level 2 exam and the HSKK beginner (初级) exam, sometimes also referred to as ‘basic’. The HSK 2 exam was very similar in format to the HSK 1, so have a look at this post to see what an HSK exam is like. Here I will only talk about the HSKK (汉语水平口语考试).

What is the HSKK and how is it different from the HSK?

Unlike the HSK (the listening/reading/writing test), the HSKK (the listening/speaking test) only has three levels: Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced. Typically a student will take the HSKK test around the same time they do the HSK 2 (for beginners), HSK 4 (for intermediates) or HSK 6 (for advanced students), although there are no restrictions on this. As with the HSK, certain employers or universities in China may require a certain HSKK level qualification in order for foreigners to apply for a job or scholarship there.

The first thing to point out is that this listening/oral test is all done on a computer without human interaction. Basically a recording plays and they record everything you say, then send your recording back to HSKK headquarters where it’s marked. It pays to be familiar with what the recording is like, so read on! In terms of how many words you need to know for each level, check out the Wikipedia page on it.


The test has three parts:

  1. Listen and repeat (15 questions, 4 mins): A short phrase is said (only once) and you have ~10 seconds to repeat it.
  2. Listen and answer (10 questions, 3 mins): A short question is asked (only once) and you have ~10 seconds to answer it.
  3. Long answer (2 questions, 7 mins preparation & 3 mins speaking): Two open-ended questions are written on your exam paper. You have 7 minutes to prepare an answer for both and then 90 seconds to answer each of them.

Part 1 tests your listening ability and pronunciation skills. Part 2 also tests your vocabulary and grammar. Part 3 doesn’t test listening (as the questions are written down for you, including pinyin) but really tests your ability to talk about a particular topic at length.


I found this test much harder to prepare for than the HSK. The first thing I did was download the official sample exam. This was a bit hard to find but you can search the official downloads page for ‘HSKK’ to get to the right section. Make sure you download both the PDF and and RAR file (which contains the audio) for the correct level. For “beginner” it’s “HSKK初级真题下载 “.

The PDF also outlines the structure and gives you two sample questions for part 3. The audio will give you an idea about the flow of the exam (e.g. how they introduce each section) as well as sample questions for parts 1 & 2.

I compiled a list of as many HSKK beginner sample questions as I could find and I tried to come up with good answers for them. I would try to come up with a full sentence answer and, if it made sense and there was still time, add a bit of extra info too. I put the short question/answer pairs into my Anki flash card deck to try and memorise them because speed is very important for this. The listening practice from the sample audio was also helpful.

I tried to come up with some answers to some of the long-answer questions too. I then posted my attempt over at lang-8.com where the great community over there would offer up corrections. While I think this was useful, it seems like there’s quite a broad range of things that can be asked here so I probably needed to spend time doing more of these.

Taking the exam

About 30 minutes before my test was scheduled to start, I waited outside my assigned room with my admission ticket (see the HSK 1 post for info about the admission ticket) until they were ready to let us in. I was seated at a specific computer and an admin person came around to check my identity. There were three of us taking the test at the same time, all at the same level.

Just before starting, the person conducting the exam advised us to speak clearly but not too loudly, as this might distract the other examinees. Indeed, we were sitting quite close to each other and it was quite easy to overhear their speech during the silent portions of the audio. This can easily break your focus and cause you to miss part of a question, which happened to me several times.

When it was time to start, we put on our headphones (that had microphones attached) and another person came around to play the CD and start the voice recording software, so there was no need for me to touch the computer at all. Audio from the CD started playing in my headphones almost immediately so it was easy to tell that everything was working. It wasn’t an integrated system, so in this case it was using the Windows default media player to play the CD and the Windows default sound recorder to record my voice.

The audio first announced the start of the exam and then asked for my name, my country of citizenship (na3 guo2 ren2) and my sequence number. I verified with a person beforehand that the number they’re after is the long one at the top of the admission ticket (mine started with an ‘H’ with many digits after). I’m not sure if this was correct though, because I didn’t have enough time to recite the whole number (7 seconds, I think) even though I was prepared for it and spoke very quickly. Hopefully that’s not a problem since the sound file is also saved with my number, I think.

The first section then began: 15 “questions” where I just needed to listen and repeat each sentence. I was surprised how hard this was for me, and being able to hear the other examinees didn’t help either. There were some questions where I didn’t know one or two words, which generally wasn’t a problem, but for some questions I missed most of what was said and couldn’t even give a response. Notably eveything in both this and the next section was only said once, not twice like in the HSK 1 & 2 exams.

The second section involved 10 short answer questions like “What’s the weather like today?” or “Who in your family can write Chinese?” I tried to give full sentence answers and if I could think of something else to say that was relevant, I’d add that in too. There was only 10 seconds to reply though. Again, there were some questions here where I didn’t understand and couldn’t give an answer.

The final section had two questions that required longer answers. These were written down on the exam paper (including pinyin). We had 7 minutes to prepare answers for these (so 3.5 minutes per question). The recording then asked for the answer to the first, with 1.5 minutes for me to reply, followed by the same for the second question. There was space on the exam paper to write down notes to help us give these answers, which was a big help. After giving the responses to these last two questions, that was the end of the exam. All up it was about 20 minutes.

How did I go?

I actually thought I’d have little problem with the first two parts and was mainly worried about the last part, but in the end I feel like the last part may have been my best section. That’s not to say I did particularly well in it though. I don’t think my answers for either of these exceeded 30 seconds. It was very challenging for me and highlighted a lot of weakness in my listening and sentence construction speed and ability. For me this is the whole point of taking these tests, so that’s a win!

To address these weaknesses I think I will look into getting a speaking partner. Stay tuned for more on this! I’ll also update this post with my results when I receive them in about a month.

2015-11-20 Update: My results are in! I received full marks for the HSK 2 (i.e. 200/200) and got 69/100 for the HSKK Beginner. The passing mark for the HSKK is 60/100 so I did manage a pass, albeit not a terribly convincing one 😉

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Preparing for the HSK 2 exam

I’m currently preparing to take the HSK 2 exam later this month. In addition to the official current sample exams, I managed to get my hands on some old 2010 ones and thought it might be useful to see what changed in the 2012 revision. This way I wouldn’t have to worry if I wasn’t already familiar with certain words no longer needed for the test.

The HSK 2012 word list can be downloaded from the official site and I was able to find the 2010 word list on hskhsk.com. Below is a summary of the differences at each level.

HSK Level 1

Words added
10 in total: 上, 几, 号, 看, 说, 后面, 水果, 没有, 饭店, 一点儿
Words removed
8 in total: 日, 没, 零, 说话, 这儿, 那儿, 饭馆, 火车站

HSK Level 2

Words added
19 in total: 从, 女, 往, 日, 男, 累, 要, 近, 零, 一下, 事情, 宾馆, 知道, 说话, 铅笔, 面条, 火车站, 因为……所以……, 虽然……但是……
Words removed
15 in total: 号, 圆, 张, 船, 但是, 公斤, 回答, 因为, 女人, 所以, 欢迎, 水果, 男人, 马上, 自行车

Some of these removals may seem curious (for example, “没” was removed even though it’s quite a crucial character) but it needs to be taken in context of the entire word list (“没有” remains in the HSK 1 list).

The lists for the higher levels are a bit too long to add here, so I’ve created a page that has all the data on it: Word list differences between HSK 2010 and 2012.