DSE 2022: Everything you need to know to prepare for the Chinese exam – or the ‘Paper of Death’ – from a top tutor

  • Hung Wai-kuen from King’s Glory Education shares advice for each paper and predicts which assigned readings are likely to appear on Paper 1
  • In these final weeks before the exam, the instructor suggests students do one past paper each week and time themselves
Yanni Chow |

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The DSE Chinese exam may be known as one of the most difficult subjects, but we have some helpful tips to get you through it. Photo: Shutterstock

Dubbed the “Paper of Death,” students taking the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exams have always been fearful of the Chinese subject.

To help you ace the test, we asked Hung Wai-kuen, a Chinese language tutor from King’s Glory Education, for tips on how to navigate each paper on the exam.

In these final weeks before the exam, Hung advises students to commit all prescribed classical Chinese texts to memory. They should do one past paper each week and time themselves, so they can be familiar with their pace during the exams.

At this point, to prepare for the writing paper, you don’t need to write a full essay every time, but the tutor suggests using 15 minutes to draft an outline and prepare some common scenarios you can use.

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Paper 1: Reading

This paper can be divided into three parts: the prescribed classical Chinese texts, unseen contemporary Chinese passages and unseen classical Chinese texts.

To finish within the exam’s 90-minute time period, Hung suggests a 20-50-20 minute approach – 20 minutes for the assigned passages, 50 minutes for unseen contemporary passages, and 20 for the unseen classical passages.

He warns students to watch their time, saying they must start the unseen classical passages during the last 20 minutes, or they risk not being able to finish.

As you practise with past Chinese reading papers, follow the 20-50-20 method to make sure you don’t fall behind during the real exam. Illustration: Shutterstock

Part 1: Prescribed classical Chinese texts

The first part, accounting for 30 per cent of the whole paper, should be what you are most familiar with, Hung says. He suggests students do this section first since it relies on memory.

While there is no way to know which texts from the 12 assigned readings will appear on the exam this year, Hung thinks these are the most likely to be chosen: 魚我所欲也, 廉頗藺相如列傳, 師說, 月下獨酌 from 唐詩三首, and 聲聲慢 from 宋詞三首.

It is not necessary to memorise all 12 of the prescribed passages since some are really long. But Hung recommends students at least learn the short ones, such as the poems (唐詩宋詞), by heart. This will come in handy for a question asking students to provide an exact quote from the passages.

Besides memorising the words of a passage, also learn the main ideas so you can paraphrase them when answering questions.

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Part 2: Unseen contemporary Chinese passages

For the unseen contemporary Chinese passages, which make up 50 per cent of the paper’s total score, there are ways to prepare even though you do not know which texts you will work with. While doing past papers helps you become familiar with the different question types, it’s important to pay attention to the model answers.

“Students usually just check how many marks they got, but the key is to analyse the model answer,” says Hung, adding that it’s crucial to find where the correct answer comes from in the passage.

Hung suggests students revise all the writing concepts (寫作/修辭手法) such as characterisation, literary devices and composition techniques since these are common components of questions.

Compared to the long, open-ended questions asking about feelings or the hidden meaning of the passage, Hung suggests students focus on securing marks on the more objective questions asking about writing concepts, which may be easier to tackle through comprehensive revision.

Part 3: Unseen classical Chinese texts

For this part, Hung says to revise the prescribed texts thoroughly, as this makes you more confident in identifying the meaning of the phrases in this section.

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Paper 2: Writing

In this paper, you must attempt one of the three writing topics, and Hung suggests students pick the writing type before entering the exam hall.

“Always choose based on the type,” says Hung, adding that even if you have a lot of content on one topic but are unfamiliar with the writing type, stick to the type that you know well.

He explains that since most students’ mother tongue is Chinese, they can still write something even if they struggle with having enough content. But if they pick an unfamiliar type of writing, they risk losing marks because of organisation, structure and presentation.

Decide before the exam date which essay type you will choose for this paper. Illustration: Shutterstock

Tips for narrative or descriptive essays

The first question is usually a narrative or descriptive essay which most students choose. Hung says the key to tackling the question is to check for hidden descriptive elements in the narrative question type.

For example, in 2016, the prompt required students to start the essay with “I felt upset after experiencing a lively scene” (熱鬧過後我卻感到失落). Students might focus on explaining why someone felt upset, but should not neglect to describe the lively scene and the upset feeling.

Another tip for better scores is to imply a life lesson in your writing, such as the pursuit of equality, love and care, or remembering one’s goal at the start.

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How to approach the open-ended essay

The second question is more freestyle and open-ended. The prompt usually involves one word, such as “footprint” in 2017, “restricted area” in 2018 and “hide” in 2021.

With such freedom, it’s important to stick to the topic and to use the exact word throughout your essay – otherwise, you may lose points. Although this question type seems simple, it is also challenging to attempt.

Last year’s tips for the Chinese reading paper

Advice for the argumentative essay

The last question is usually an argumentative essay. Hung says it is key to provide multiple angles to present your arguments.

When choosing examples to illustrate your points, choose carefully. Hung suggests ditching popular ones such as Hong Kong Olympic medallists Edgar Cheung Ka-long and Sarah Lee Wai-sze, or even Mother Teresa. Even if they are accurate, these examples have been used too often and can be cliché.

To score high marks, include a counterargument and refutation – after acknowledging the points against your argument, reaffirm your own. It will also be useful to memorise famous sayings and strong idioms to polish your writing.

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Paper 3: Listening and Integrated Skills

The final paper tests your ability to combine your listening skills and data analysis in order to complete the writing tasks.

As you only have 75 minutes for this paper, Hung suggests students read the data file in 10 minutes, write for the integration and elaboration parts (整合拓展/見解論證) in 30 minutes each, and leave the final five minutes for a conclusion.

For the listening and integrated skills section, remember to watch your time. Illustration: Shutterstock

Integration (整合拓展)

For the integration part, the key to success lies in the details.

“Students should try to write it as if it’s a real-life scenario,” explains Hung.

For example, when the data file is about a debate competition, students need to use the limited information they receive to make up their own – such as cooperating with teammates, researching topics and practising public speaking.

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Elaboration (見解論證)

The same goes for the elaboration part – the information from the data file, usually an event or a project, contains few details. So it’s crucial to develop your ideas to create relevant content.

Hung says students must do past papers to train their association, imagination and sense of time.

Some students spend all their time on one part, leaving them to rush through the conclusion which can cost them points. The tutor says the best students are already so familiar with the task that they don’t need to waste time thinking about what to write.

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