The Willow Pattern
When first looking at the beautiful Willow design, one may ask a number of questions. Who lives in the two houses? Who are the three figures on the bridge? Why does the fence warrant such a prominent place in the design? Part of the answer to these questions lies in the fact that the Willow design is an English adaptation to a traditional Chinese riverside scene. Throughout the late 18th century, Chinese porcelain was quite desirable in Europe. Many of the porcelain exports from China reflected the same botanically ornate and rectilinear repeating geometric design as the Willow pattern.
The story begins in the large home of a wealthy and influential Mandarin in the Chinese empire. His stately home, shown on the right side of the plate, is surrounded with luscious flowers, exotic trees, and rare botanicals. In the service of the Mandarin was an intelligent youth of lowly birth, Chang. In the house of the Mandarin lived his lovely daughter Koong-se. Having worked for so long with the Mandarin, Chang fell in love with the beautiful Koong-se.
For many evenings, Chang and Koong-se would meet beneath the river willow. News of these meetings reached the Mandarin who became enraged that his daughter had fallen in love with someone of such lowly birth. The Mandarin quickly dispensed of Chang’s services and kept his daughter prisoner on the large estate. For his daughter, the Mandarin built an additional suite of apartments that protruded into the river. Around his home and the grounds, he ordered a large fence to be built. From inside the fence, Koong-se could enjoy her father’s home, the grounds surrounding the house, and the river.
The Mandarin worked diligently to arrange his daughter’s marriage to a wealthy Duke. Without the consent of Koong-se, the Mandarin betrothed his daughter to the Duke. Koong-se was told of her betrothal and that their wedding feast would take place at the time of the blossoming of the peach tree. The days following the arrival of this news were lonely and depressing. Koong-se spent many hours staring at the river, thinking only of her true love, Chang. One day, Koong-se noticed a miniature boat fashioned from a coconut shell floating along the river. Stretching her parasol over the water, Koong-se retrieved the odd little boat. Inside, she found a letter from Chang which said, “As this boat sails to thee, so my thoughts tend.” Koong-se’s faith was renewed and her heart was full of bliss. Hastily, Koong-se replied asking Chang not to lose hope. In her reply she spoke of the coming wedding to the Duke. Koong-se placed her letter in the coconut shell with a stick of incense. Under the darkness of night, Koong-se watched the light float along the river. When she could see it no more she retired to the house.
Days passed and Koong-se did not hear from her faithful lover. The blossoming of the peach tree neared as its boughs were made heavy with new buds. One day, the Duke arrived with a host of servants, the ring of the gong, and blasts from trumpets. A banquet was planned to celebrate Koong-se’s wedding to the Duke. Despite the feast and celebration, Koong-se could not be consoled. The Duke came to her room and laid on her table a large box of rare and precious jewels. Koong-se’s hearts remained hardened against the Duke and she sat silently watching him turn his back to leave. In her heart she prayed that Chang would rescue her.
Chang entered the Mandarin’s estate using the disguise of a servant. From outside of the house, he watched the Mandarin and Duke drink aged wines in merriment. Later in the evening, the Mandarin and Duke fell into a deep sleep. Chang stole into the house and went to Koong-se’s door. Finally, they were in each other’s embrace. Carrying the box of jewels given by the Duke, the couple fled the Mandarin’s house. As they were leaving, the Mandarin became aware of what was happening. With a loud cry, he ran after them. Koong-se and Chang ran through the gate and toward the river. The Blue Willow pattern shows them running across the bridge. Koong-se is first carrying the distaff of virginity. Behind her, Chang is carrying the box of jewels stolen from the Duke. Last is the great Mandarin chasing after them with a whip in his hand.
Koong-se and Chang escaped by way of a readied boat. They made their way to a distant village where they sold the jewels and purchased a small house by the river. Together, Koong-se and Chang cultivated the land around them with beautiful flowers, fertile orchards, fresh fruits, and vegetables. The pagoda on the upper-left of the pattern is partially hidden by the overgrowth of vegetation. For several years, Koong-se and Chang lived a comfortable and happy life. The Duke, still angry, hired spies to find the whereabouts of Koong-se and Chang. After many years of searching, they were found. The Duke surrounded their house with villainous warriors and was prepared to murder Koong-se and Chang. As a final act of protest, Koong-se set the house afire. The gods, witnessing Koong-se and Chang’s undying love blessed them by turning them into immortal love birds. The gods punished the Duke by banishing him to the murky depths of the river. The Duke’s warriors and spies, having seen the wrath of the gods, fled and hid themselves.
So the Willow design is in fact a story of the undying love of two young people determined to share their lives together. It is a theme that is beautiful and timeless, much like the design Willow has become known for.