TIANJIN, China — When Yang Zheyu arrived at Tianjin University this fall for the start of his first year, he had all the essentials. Winter coat. Dictionary. Four pairs of shoes. Toothpaste.
And a few hundred yards from his dormitory, in a cobalt-blue tent set up on the floor of a gymnasium, he had his mother at his beck and call, ready to bring him bowls of instant noodles, buy him soap and scrub the floor of his new room.
“I feel safer when she’s here,” said Yang, 18, from a central Chinese town more than 700 miles away. “I’ve never been away from home before.”
Yang’s mother, Ding Hongyan, a farmer, was one of more than 1,000 parents of the class of 2022 who camped out in tents this month to watch over their children as they settled into college.
The parents came bearing bags of sunflower seeds, Hello Kitty backpacks stuffed with toilet paper and unsolicited advice on a variety of topics: the acceptable price of steamed dumplings ($1.50), the most lucrative college majors (engineering was a favorite) and the appropriateness of dating (best to be avoided while studying).
Since 2012, Tianjin University, about two hours southeast of Beijing, has offered the “tents of love” for free with the aim of making it easier for poor families to take part in the move-in tradition.
But the phenomenon, which has spread to several universities across China, has prompted debate about whether parents are coddling the generation of only children born after China’s one-child policy was adopted in 1979, and undermining their independence. The policy was abolished beginning in 2016.
Older generations of Chinese, who suffered through extreme poverty and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, have criticized parents who make long, arduous journeys to live in the tents, saying they are raising children unaccustomed to hardship, or “little emperors,” as they are derisively called.
Younger Chinese, who grew up in China’s boom years, say they are decidedly self-sufficient.
“I will learn to take care of myself,” Yang said. “I’m not worried about anything.”
The debate over the tents, which has also played out online, reflects the rapid pace of change in China and the relative novelty of the college experience and its various rituals.
Many young people in China today are the first in their families to go to college. The government has opened hundreds of universities in recent years, and enrollment has surged, reaching 37.8 million students last year, up more than 20 percent since 2010.
At Tianjin University, parents said they had signed up for the tents because they were nervous about sending their children long distances and couldn’t afford accommodations in big cities. Many come from rural areas, where they work as farmers, teachers and construction workers.
Many families were lost amid the lakes and willow trees of Tianjin, one of China’s oldest universities, with more than 17,000 undergraduate students. The city of Tianjin, which overlooks the Bohai Sea, is a cosmopolitan port city, dotted with skyscrapers as well as churches and villas built by foreign powers that ruled the city in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Qi Hongyu, a kindergarten administrator from the eastern province of Jiangsu, said he had made the journey to Tianjin because he was proud of his daughter and wanted to see what the university looked like. “She is realizing my dream,” he said.
Qi, who grew up working on farms, said his daughter and her classmates had more comfortable lives than previous generations. But he said he hoped they would grow more independent by living farther from home.
“They grew up in greenhouses,” he said. “They have never experienced real life. They have always been studying.”
As dusk fell, hundreds of parents, blankets and pillows in hand, filed into a gym to stake out their territory, jostling for spots near the bleachers. They washed their faces and brushed their teeth in nearby locker rooms.
The gym echoed with a cacophony of dialects from across China, and many parents struggled to understand one another.
As they prepared to sleep, the parents talked about the best breakfast places and where to buy cheap bedding for their children’s dorms. They compared their children’s scores on the college entrance exam and discussed how to encourage them to go into high-paying industries.
Yang Luping, an English teacher from rural China, reminded her daughter that soon she would have to learn to do her own laundry now that she was in college. “I already know how,” her daughter, Lu Yizhuo, interrupted.
Yang is a self-described “tiger mom” who worked for years to ensure that her daughter got into a good university. When her daughter was young, she bought her Barbie dolls to encourage her studies. She sent her to boarding school and washed her clothes every weekend when she came home.
Yang refers to her daughter as a “gift sent to me by the heavens.” She said it was important that her daughter began the school year with a sense of support from her family.
“I want to be next to her to make sure she is safe and happy,” Yang said. “I always tell her that I wish that even in the next life we can be mother and daughter again.”
For many parents, having a front-row seat at move-in provided an opportunity to set a few rules.
Ding, the farmer, said she worried about how her son, Yang Zheyu, would fare in a city with so many skyscrapers and distractions. He came down with fevers frequently as a child. And he sometimes seemed addicted to his cellphone, she said, playing games and devouring sci-fi novels.
After the more than 36-hour journey by train and bus from their hometown in Hubei province to the tents in Tianjin, Ding offered some advice. No video games. No lazy friends. And no romantic relationships.
Yang, with thick black frames, a bright yellow T-shirt that said “RESURRECTION” and a faint mustache, looked skeptical. “That’s not necessary,” he said.
They agreed to disagree, and promised to stay in touch regularly by phone and by WeChat, a popular messaging app. So long as it did not interfere with his studies.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.