By Wenhao Ma
“Would you like to see the work of womanhood? Then go see the baby carriers!”
This is an old saying of the Shui, a minority group living in South China who, like many other Chinese ethnic groups, see baby carriers as more than just baby carriers themselves, but the demonstration of love and anticipation for their new-born children.
On March 11, the Charles B. Wang Center brought several Chinese baby carriers of various styles and forms to its exhibition, “Fertility, Blessings and Protection: Taiwanese and Asian Cultures of Baby Carriers.”
“In conjunction with the celebration of Asia Week New York, I wanted to organize an exhibition to capture the precious Asian tradition and extraordinary workmanship,” said Jinyoung Jin, the director of cultural programs at Wang Center.
The exhibition includes 19 baby carriers from different ethnic groups like the Han, Shui, Miao, Dong, Hakka and aboriginal tribes of Taiwan. However, they all share the same significance, which is the best wish given from the family to their babies.
“In each culture, no matter the time and the place, children are the most precious assets,” said Lee Talbot, curator at the Textile Museum at the George Washington University Museum.
Talbot, who considered baby carriers “colorful and finely made,” gave a speech: “Precious Cargo: Chinese Baby Carriers in Global Context,” at Wang Center Theater on the opening day of the exhibition, talking about the symbolic meaning of baby carriers and comparing them with those of other countries.
“The design (of baby carriers) typically convey wishes for the baby’s health, safety and well-being,” said Talbot. “These (baby carriers) have an unique emotional message: they express the love of the mother, the devotion of the mother for her child, their hopes for the future.”
Another function of the baby carrier, according to Talbot, is to identify the woman who wears it by its textile.
“Textile functions as identity markers in China among Han and also minority people in Southwest China,” said Talbot. “People of these cultures can look at what a woman is wearing and they can very clearly make judgments about her ethnic group, her marital status, her family wealth or her suitability for marriage.”
Talbot also mentioned the complicated process of making baby carriers in the past when mass-producing by machines was not yet realized. Getting to the finished product requires a number of steps, a tremendous amount of time and great skills.
The steps of hand-making of baby carriers involves getting fibers ready for weaving by being cultivated, tended, harvested and cut down, Talbot explained. These then have to be joined together, twisted and leached.
“Baby carriers from China are just so rich in symbolism and also the techniques are so refined,” Talbot added. ‘I think that’s what makes them just such a very special type of object.”
The exhibition was organized by the Wang Center, Taiwan’s National Museum of Prehistory, the Taipei Cultural Center in New York and curator Taini Hsu, with support from the Taiwanese Minister of Culture. The exhibition started on March 11 and will last for four months until July 11.