Chinese Names for Foreign Universities – What Can Go Wrong?

Wed, 07/12/2017 - 10:29

A common saying goes “The tailor makes the man.” Chinese parents and students selecting colleges are affected by their brand names. When some students graduate from a famous foreign college, their neighbors and relatives back home may think they merely graduated from a diploma mill. Why? Because of a poor Chinese name translation.

Nanjing Marketing Group has been working with higher education institutions for several years, but before that, we became well known for our Chinese brand name localization methods. Here are some of my thoughts on choosing Chinese names for education institutions.


Branch Schools (分校)

I often feel confused as to why so many independent colleges are called “分校” (fenxiao, branch school) in Chinese. When parents notice “fenxiao” in a Chinese name, they’re likely to wonder where the main campus is located. They’d prefer the main campus for their children.

University of California (加利福尼亚大学) is well known in China for their ten branches. But University of California is not a college at all; it is a public university system in the U.S. state of California. Collectively, the institutions and alumni of the University of California make it the most comprehensive and advanced postsecondary educational system in the world.[1] At present, the University of California system officially describes itself as a "ten campus" system. Universities share the name and public status of the UC system, but they are all independent universities.

In the past, all ten University of California universities were translated as “加利福尼亚大学xx分校”. Translating back into English, this sounds like “University of California Berkeley Branch”. It’s not the most fitting name, since University of California, Berkeley is a famous public research university and often cited as one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

Similarly, UCLA is the cradle of American commercial finance, high-tech industries, and film art. It ranked in the Top 15 of The Times Higher Education World University Rankings for several years. 2 Yet it’s Chinese brand name makes it sound like just a branch of “University of California”. There are many other colleges in the world that have this “branch” problem, for example:

  • University of Maryland, College Park (马里兰大学帕克分校)
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (伊利诺伊大学厄巴纳-香槟分校)
  • Miami University, Oxford (迈阿密大学牛津分校)
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (北卡罗来纳大学教堂山分校)
  • Washington University (St. Louis) (华盛顿大学圣路易斯分校)


Geographic Place Names

When a place name appears in a school name, people will naturally think that the school is located in that place, or at least that it is related to the place in a certain way. Place names should be chosen very carefully.

We suggest that colleges be very specific with their Chinese place names to avoid potential confusion. For example, Northeastern University (东北大学 Dongbei Daxue) of Boston U.S.A. has the same Chinese name as Northeastern University in Dalian, China. And Northwestern University (西北大学 Xibei Daxue) of Illinois also has a namesake in China.


As another example, Wollongong University is located in Australia. Its Chinese name is 卧龙岗 (Wo Long Gang), which is a famous scenic spot in China. The story of "Three Visits to the Hut"[3] happened there, which will naturally be the first thing that comes to mind for many Chinese students & their parents.

University of Waterloo: For most Chinese, Waterloo brings to mind The Battle of Waterloo, the battle in which allied troops greatly hurt Napoleon in Belgium and ended Napoleon’s governance. But, actually, University of Waterloo is not located in France or Belgium, but in Canada, and it’s one of the best universities in North America. It would be helpful to add “Canada” to the Chinese name.


Names With a Religious Context

There are many colleges that were established by religious groups, especially all-female schools. Wesleyan Female College is well known in China because of the Soong Sisters[4] . The missionary universities advanced the Western higher education system and many elite colleges were founded by missionaries. Harvard University, the first college established in America, was established by Puritans in 1636. Cornell University and Yale University were also founded by churches.

Those brands don’t bring a religious context to mind, but when Chinese see a college name like University of Notre Dame, they are likely to think it’s just a missionary university rather than a comprehensive university. Its name in Chinese is “圣母大学” (Shengmu Daxue), “Shengmu” means means “Holy Mother of God” / “Virgin Mary”. This university also has a transliterated name “诺特丹大学” (Nuotedan Daxue). It sounds like “Notre Dame” but doesn’t carry a strongly religious feel. I feel it would be better for them to adopt that as their official Chinese name.

Purdue University is a public research university and a member of the Big Ten Conference. It’s not a religious college, and has no relationship with Buddhism. But the Chinese name contains 普渡 , which means something like “to help people become morally better”. It’s tough to translate, but if you search for “普渡” on Baidu, it will turn up images like the one below. That should give you an idea of what the word brings to mind for Chinese people. “Purdue” could be transliterated into different Chinese characters to avoid confusion.

Names With an Incorrect Institution Type

The word “school” in Chinese is “学校” (xuexiao), people usually use this name to refer to primary schools or training schools. Training schools have another name in Chinese: “专科” (zhuanke). “College” in Chinese is “学院” (xueyuan), it’s usually used by tier 2 or 3 universities. “University” in Chinese is “大学” (daxue), and they can enroll more students.[5]

Ecole Normale Superieure’s name in Chinese is “巴黎高等师范专科”, which means “Teachers’ Training School of Paris”. It sounds like a school for training teachers.

University College London (伦敦大学学院) is a public research university and a constituent college of the federal University of London. In 1836 UCL became one of the two founding colleges of the University of London, which was granted a royal charter in the same year. Chinese often confuse it with The University of London.


I covered some common problems above. However, most Chinese naming issues can’t be broken down systematically. It takes the eye of a mainland Chinese reader and some careful research to dig for potential problems. Let’s take a look at some other strange Chinese names of foreign colleges.  

Doshisha University is one of Japan's oldest private institutions of higher learning. Its Chinese name is “同志社大学”. Chinese students recognize “同志” in Chinese is a term of address for homosexuals, leading them to think it’s a college for homosexuals only. Meanwhile, Chinese parents are of another generation, they’re likely to recognize “同志” to mean “comrade”, a term of address between communists.

One of the quickest ways that people who've just met stereotype each other is by appearance. They do the same for schools – a suitable school name will help attract more attention from students and their parents.



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