Willow Pattern: A popular Chinese design depicting a story of forbidden love

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Katerina Bulovska
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The Willow Pattern is a recognizable landscape design that was popular in England in the last half of the 18th and the beginning of 19th century. It developed in a period when England was fascinated by the Orient, especially with China. The blue and white decoration was characteristic of the porcelain imported from China. But since the imported products were very expensive, the English created their own cheaper imitation of Chinese porcelain during the Industrial Revolution.

The design on the landscape is inspired by a romantic story of forbidden love. As the legend goes, once upon a time in China, there lived a beautiful daughter of a wealthy Mandarin named Koong-se. In the grand palace of her father also lived his secretary, the young, attractive and intelligent Chang. He and Koong-se fell in love, but when the Mandarin found out he was furious and sent Chang into exile, while the beautiful Koong-se was imprisoned in a dwelling. In order to reassure himself the two would never meet again, the Mandarin also built a high wall.

Koong-se was to be kept in the dwelling until the day she would marry Ta-jin, a noble warrior Duke whom her father had chosen as a husband for her. Desperate, Koon-se managed to send a message to Chang with the help of one of her maids: The fruit you most prize will be gathered when the willow blossom drops upon the bough.

A plate with Willow Pattern. Author: Bertil Wreting/Fototeket/Nationalmuseum. CC BY 3.0

Chang understood the code words and realized his only solution was to sneak into the palace and take Koong-se away with him. Meanwhile, Ta-jin arrived at the palace of the Mandarin for the celebration of the engagement with a present for Koong-se, a box full of precious jewels. Many banquets followed and during all that time, Koong-se thought only of Chang.

One night, Chang disguised himself as a servant and smuggled himself into her apartments. She was delighted to see him, picked up the jewel box, and the two of them quietly departed towards the bridge by the willow tree, finally to escape from the palace.

Different pieces with Willow Pattern, 19th century. Author: Wmpearl. CC0

Unfortunately, one of her father’s servant noticed them while running away from the Mandarin, so the couple hid in the house of Koong-se’s maid until the situation calmed a little. Then they ran away, sold the jewels, and settled on an exotic island, happy to be together at last. But the Mandarin was determined to find them and offered a reward for anyone that had any information where they might be. Ta-jin was also seeking a revenge for his stolen jewels and wife.

Willow Pattern, Chinese export porcelain, c. 1760

Eventually, the soldiers of the Mandarin and Ta-jin found them and mortally wounded Chang. Realizing she couldn’t live without him, Koong-se set the house on fire, and the lovers perished in flames. Their tragic love story touched the gods and returned their souls in two doves that rose from the ashes so that they could fly together for eternity.

Willow Pattern on display in the National Maritime Museum of Ireland in Dún Laoghaire. Author: Lugnad. CC BY-SA 4.0

Many centuries have passed since then. In 1780, Thomas Minton engraved the first copper plate with their tragic story. The pattern was mass-produced by the factory of Thomas Turner in Shropshire. Soon after, porcelain depicted with the romance was manufactured in New Hall, Suffolk, Lowestoft, Suffolk, Staffordshire, and all over England. It didn’t take long before its popularity spread across Europe and the United States.

Illustration of the Willow Pattern (1917)

People were fascinated by the story and the Willow pattern was a huge success, depicting the immortalized doves kissing, the palace of the Mandarin, a weeping willow, the island where the couple arrived, the house of Koong-se’s maid next to the bridge, and three figures on the bridge.

Obviously, they are the protagonists of the story: Koong-see carries a distaff, symbol of virginity, Chang bears the precious jewel, and the enraged Mandarin is chasing them. Sometimes, a fourth figure is added to the pattern, representing the desperate Ta-jin.

Lydiate Hall: 1 – Porcelain drinking cup 2 – bowl and plate, decorated with the Willow Pattern 3 – squashed metal bowl. On display in the Museum of Liverpool. Author: Mike Peel. CC BY-SA 4.0

Willow pattern was most popular in blue and white, although it was also produced in pink, red, green and brown. Today the pattern is still manufactured since it never really fell out of favor, widely acknowledged as “the world’s most popular, most produced, and familiar China pattern”.