Zuma was in the country attending the fifth Forum of China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) meeting, the presidency said in a statement.
In his acceptance speech, Zuma said the award was a sign of China's confidence in South Africa.
"Let me also express my personal thanks to this institution and the broader leadership of the People's Republic of China for deeming me worthy of this honour," he said.
"I take this as a symbol of the confidence the Chinese have in South Africa as an emerging country of the South, as well as a partner in the pursuit of a just international order."
He said the award confirmed that China was a country "inspired by the zest for knowledge through education".
"We are inspired by the value attached to education in the analects of the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, who stressed the importance of education and study as being fundamental to human progress," Zuma said.
"We believe that today marks the beginning of a new chapter in the educational relations between our two countries."
He said that education was important in South Africa, and it received the biggest share of the country's budget.
"More money is always needed to address the huge backlogs left by more than 300 years of colonial subjugation, and we appreciate that our international partners, like China, play a major role in this regard," the president said.
"History tells us that if used positively, education develops people and ensures that they are capacitated to change society for the better. I say this because some have used education negatively."
He said the award could be seen as the recognition and appreciation by China of the role the African National Congress played in the struggle against apartheid.
"All of us in the leadership of the ANC have made these accomplishments because of the unwavering support of the South African people," Zuma said.
"I am genuinely humbled that this recognition is done through me as the leader of this organisation, and as the leader of the democratic government of South Africa."
This is the ninth honorary academic award that Zuma has received.
The others are from the University of Fort Hare, the University of Zululand, the Medical University of Southern Africa, the University of Limpopo, the University of Zambia, the American University of Nigeria, the University of Abomey-Calavi of Benin and the Texas Southern University.