This study analysed the geographical development characteristics of Chinese universities from hierarchical and regional perspectives by establishing a publishing index, defining development patterns, and dividing relevant grades on the basis of academic articles during 1986-2018. The articles were published in the top four Chinese geographic journals: Acta Geographica Sinica, Geographical Research, Scientia Geographica Sinica, and Progress in Geography. We discuss the factors influencing the geographical development of Chinese universities. The results showed that (1) temporally, publication trends indicated an increase in geographical research in China from 1986 to 2018, which featured spatial agglomeration and quantitative hierarchy. So, we divided the number of publications into three categories (high, medium, and low) using systematic clustering analysis. (2) We examined the development history of different types of university involved in projects to promote the development of Chinese higher education by national and local governments. Universities sponsored by Project 985 were the largest contributors to the number of published articles, which formed the nucleus of geographical research, and universities sponsored by Project 211 contributed a medium-high number. For other universities, the annual number of published articles prior to 2006 was generally low and increased slowly. Since 2006, the number in some universities increased rapidly, while others remained low-stationary, showing the evolution of the coexisting pattern of high-medium-low categories. (3) Spatially, in eastern China, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Nanjing are centres of geographical research, ranking at the top in terms of geographical knowledge production. In addition, universities in the central region developed rapidly after 2004. Universities in the western region showed an asymmetric pattern, specifically, the northwest was stronger that the southwest. (4) The historical pattern of geographical research could be summarized using J, S, and linear curves. The findings revealed that the number of universities with J and linear curves was higher than those with S curves, while the number of universities that published papers at the middle and low levels was larger than those at the high level. In the future, geographical development will experience increasing improvement, although there is the external gap between the core and periphery for Chinese universities, i.e., between western and eastern universities, as well as with other universities and those sponsored by Projects 985 and 211. (5) A framework has been constructed to illustrate the development disequilibrium and factors influencing the geographical development of universities. It is suggested that future practices should not only involve the introduction of excellent research teams and the provision of policy support, but also the utilization of regional characteristics to cultivate teams that can achieve sustainable geographical development in China.