I couldn’t resist buying the beautiful book, Bonding via Baby Carriers: the Art and Soul of the Miao and Dong People (Les Enphants Co., 2001), from Peppermint, an internet babywearing boutique that appeals to the “mama of the world” in me. (In addition to modern American baby carriers like the Ergo Baby Carrier and Hotslings pouches, Peppermint carries traditional baby carriers like African kangas, Mexican rebozos, and even some vintage Thai baby carriers. Very cool stuff to babywearing geeks.)
The title of the book can be misleading to babywearers, so first, let me explain what this book is not. It is not a book about babywearing. It is not a book about how to bond with your baby by using baby carriers. It is not even particularly a book about how the Miao and Dong people bond with their babies by using baby carriers.
Bonding Via Baby Carriers is an art book. Well, mostly an art book. It presents the collection … the really impressive collection … of 50 baby carriers and fragments thereof belonging to one of the authors, Christi Lan Lin. Mrs. Lin collected the carriers (or at least many of them) on a trip through the Gui-zhou Province of China, which is populated largely by the Miao people.
All of the carriers were meticulously handmade by members of the Miao, Dong, and other minority peoples of Mainland China. And by handmade, I don’t mean handmade the way I would make a carrier in my sewing room on a crafty afternoon. I mean really handmade. Totally handmade. Handmade from the ground up. Lin explains that “[w]hen the girls are eight or nine, they begin to learn the traditional techniques … to make the clothes that will dress them and their families for the rest of their lives.” The girls learn “how to perform every step of the process of making clothes, which includes picking cotton, extracting cotton from the cotton flower, looming yarn, stretching yarn, raising silkworms, extracting silk threads from the cocoons, looming silk yarn, dyeing, and embroidery.” Being highly skilled in these handicrafts makes a girl attractive to suitors. “It is precisely because they see such a strong connection between weaving, embroidery, batik dyeing, love, and life that young girls will dedicate all their energy into perfecting this particular technique and make baby carriers,” Lin explains. “The baby carrier bespeaks the deep and complex emotions of a mother’s love.”
Inspired by the art and devotion of the women who made these astonishingly intricate baby carriers, Lin collected them, which was no small feat. Most women, because of cultural traditions or just because of their understandably strong attachment to the carriers they created and carried their babies in, will not give them up. When circumstances are such that they need to sell them, they still usually cut off and keep the ties for themselves. Lin said she “could not help but imagine that, in the complex, emotinal world of mothers …, these baby carrier ties might be the replacement for the umbilical cords we cut when our babies are born.”
Lin shared what she learned about the baby carriers with her mother and her daughter, who “were both moved by the same impulses and emotions that moved [Lin] to collect baby carriers.” Lin, her mother, Yu-Chiao Lui Lan, and daughter, brenda [sic] Lin, each contributed essays about the bonds they shared. Thus, the book was both a bonding experience and an expression of the already-existing attachment for the three authors. The authors, none of them babywearers, nevertheless seem to have bonded via baby carriers.
I sensed that some ideas were lost in translation in this book. Each author wrote her essays in the language in which she was educated: Lin wrote in Chinese, her mother wrote in Japanese, and her daughter wrote in English. The women then translated the others’ essays, so that the book is presented in all three languages. Perhaps the title strikes me as odd because I have bonded with my children through the use of baby carriers, whereas none of the authors gives any indication that she has ever used a baby carrier. Or perhaps the title conveys something a bit different in Chinese or Japanese than it does in English.
Wishing, as I do, that every mother and baby could experience the liberation that comes from being bound together, I wish that the authors had given more thought and treatment to the practice of using baby carriers. There is but one photograph of a baby carrier carrying a baby, and that is on the cover. Lin gives detailed treatment to the symbols and other decorations on each carrier but virtually no treatment to how the different styles of carriers in the collection were used to carry a baby. I found myself yearning for some clue as to how these works of practical art actually worked.
Still, I took from this book the inspiration to give a nod to the tradition of the Miao and Dong peoples and craft an heirloom carrier or two with my own hands. I think I’ll buy the silk already spun, woven, and dyed, though.