JAVIER C. HERNÁNDEZ
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. Toothpaste.
And not far from his dormitory, in a cobalt-blue tent set up on the floor of a gymnasium, he had his mother nearby, ready to bring him bowls of instant noodles and scrub the floor of his room.
“I feel safer when she’s here,” said Mr. Yang, 18, from a town more than 1,100 kilometers away. “I’ve never been away from home before.”
Mr. 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 last 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 whether to date (best to be avoided while studying).
Since 2012, Tianjin University, about two hours southeast of Beijing, has offered the “tents of love” 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, who suffered through extreme poverty and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, have criticized parents who make long journeys to live in the tents, saying they are raising children unaccustomed to hardship, or “little emperors,” as they are called.
Younger Chinese, who grew up in China’s boom years, say they are self-sufficient.
“I will learn to take care of myself,” Mr. Yang said. “I’m not worried about anything.”
Many young people today are the first in their families to go to college. The government has opened hundreds of universities, 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 Jiangsu, said he had made the journey because he was proud of his daughter. He hoped this generation would grow more independent by living away from home. “They grew up in greenhouses,” he said. “They have never experienced real life.”
As dusk fell, hundreds of parents, blankets and pillows in hand, filed into a gym. They washed their faces and brushed their teeth in nearby locker rooms. The gym echoed with dialects, and many parents struggled to understand one another.
Ms. Ding said she worried about how her son, Mr. Yang, would fare. 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.
Ms. Ding, who planned to stay in touch by phone and the app WeChat, offered some advice. No video games. No lazy friends. And no romance.
Mr. Yang looked skeptical. “That’s not necessary,” he said.
They come bearing comfort food, and advice on dating.