The Blue Hoax – The Willow Legend
Most of us have grown up with treasured memories of eating at grandma’s house on plates with a blue willow design. They were special ware, an heirloom set treasured by our beloved grandmas. And many of us share similar memories of grandma and grandpa seated by the fire after a sumptuous meal, relating the romantic tale of the design on the dishes, the story of “Blue Willow “, to an eager audience of grandchildren.
Incidentally, the Willow refers to the pattern. The design is applied via transfer or a stamp. The background color is always white, while the foreground color is most often blue but can also be pink, green or brown depending on the preference of the maker. Its appeal is unremitting.
Blue and white pottery, collectibles, figurines and tableware were all the rage in England and Europe in the 1700s and 1800s. And it was only a matter of time before someone would take full advantage of this fashionable Chinese trend to further the sale of domestic wares.
Having created this blue white chinaware in England, they needed a promotional story and fabricated one to resemble a Chinese legend. Now that’s where this harmless hoax comes in. It so happens that a very popular tale of “Blue Willow” depicted on porcelain was created in England around 1790 by Thomas Minton. Other references give alternative origins, such as Thomas Turner of Caughley porcelain, with a design date of 1780.
The popularity of the willow pattern from 18th century England, with its everlasting appeal, has led to its continual production for well over 200 yrs.
Many find the romantic story of the blue willow particularly appealing and that is why it comes as no surprise to anyone to find new productions of this pattern that are now dishwasher and microwave safe, manufactured in many countries including, ironically, China.
The various stories are all based on the elements of the design but the most famous romantic version of this English fable went something like this:
The Willow Legend
Long, long ago in ancient China, there lived a very wealthy mandarin. He had a beautiful daughter named Koong-se. The mandarin had in his employ a secretary named Chang. While Chang was attending to his master’s accounts one day a chance encounter with the beautiful maiden Koong-se caused him to fall deeply and hopelessly in love with her. As he was most handsome and charismatic she also had fallen in love with him after this brief encounter.
Unable to keep away; the following day at dusk they met clandestinely in a magnificent garden with rare and exotic fruit trees and professed their love for each other and exchanged vows of fidelity beneath a large Willow tree. Unfortunately this breach of conduct came to the attention of the Mandarin who was greatly incensed and dismissed the young man at once, banishing him from the state, for he regarded the secretary most unworthy of his high born daughter. In an angry reprimand the Mandarin then virtually imprisoned her in her private quarters and had her activities continually monitored to make sure his orders were carried out.
Koong-se spent the following days engulfed in a miasma of hopelessness, as she remained imprisoned in the pavilion. She watched the construction of a high zig-zag fence that was to ensure the lovers remain apart in dismay. After a time, because of health concerns the restrictions on Koong-se were gradually eased and she was permitted a leisurely walk in the gardens and by the water’s edge. The love struck maiden however, could not forget the handsome young man she’d fallen in love with and, with longing heart, her thoughts often reverted to the happier times they both had shared. Sometimes she would sit beneath the Willow tree that had once been a place of joy and quietly weep. Months went by but Koong-se still longed to see her handsome, young Chang.
Then one day her eyes caught sight of a shell fitted with sails containing a poem, and a bead which Koong-se had given to Chang. It had floated to the water’s edge. Koong-se’s heart jumped for joy as new hope sprung anew, for she knew then that her lover had not forsaken her.
Her elation was short lived and joy turned to consternation when that evening she was summoned by her father where she learned of her betrothal to Ta-Jin, a very powerful, warrior Duke. Worse still, the Duke Ta-Jin was many years her senior and was renowned for his malice. Her heart sank in despair when it was announced to her that her future husband would be arriving in a few days time, bearing gifts of jewels to celebrate their betrothal. The wedding was to take place on the day the blossoms fell from the willow tree.
Then came the dreaded day when the Duke arrived by boat with all pomp and ceremony to claim his young, beautiful bride, bearing box of jewels as a gift.
On the eve of Koong-se’s wedding to the Duke, when all grew sleepy with the wine in their cups, Chang, disguised as a servant, slipped into the house unnoticed. At the banquet the Mandarin, the Duke and the quests, totally inebriated, failed to take any notice of the disguised Chang, who easily passed through to the interior garden.
Earlier, Chang had sent a message to Koong-se via her personal maid, in order to arrange a clandestine meeting by the Willow tree. Koong-se therefore had also fled through the hushed rooms, carrying the casket of jewels. Now in the inner gardens, as Chang drew near, he saw his beautiful Koong-se sitting beneath the tree. Chang rushed to embrace her. They were so much in love that no words needed to be spoken out loud: they would brave all dangers, not wanting to face the future apart. They would elope and get married or die trying.
The Mandarin, the Duke, and the invited guests even some of the servants had consumed so much wine that the couple almost made it through to safety. But unfortunately, just as they reached the outer gate the Mandarin awoke saw his daughter and Chang fleeing with the jewels and in a drunken rage pursued them with his whip in hand across the little bridge that spanned the river.
Koong-se was carrying her distaff, a symbol of virginity while Chang was entrusted with the jewels. The couple raced across the bridge to an awaiting boat and sailed away. The alarm was raised; and it took the lovers and their helpers a harrowing effort to eventually outrun the Duke’s ship. Chang, Koong-se and her personal maid, who’d been dismissed for conspiring with the lovers but who had snuck back in to aid her in her escape, took refuge on a far off island. The mandarin official of this small island hated the Duke and so welcomed the lovers with the maid into his home. He was willing to harbour the refugees for however long was necessary until the danger abated. After a private ceremony with the Mandarin’s blessings, the lovers officially became husband and wife. For a period of time Chang lived happily as the Mandarin’s gardener with his wife and the maid. When the Duke discovered their whereabouts however, Chang and Koong-se was forced to flee once again.
They poled a tiny boat down the Yang-Tze until they came to a remote small island. Here, they thought they would be out of harm’s way. Selling the reminder of the jewels, they purchased this island and built a lovely pavilion on it. Chang tilled the land until it blossomed with every kind of fruit and vegetable. So successful were his agricultural ventures, Chang wrote a book about how to cultivate the land and published it under an assumed name. Over time Chang became renowned for his brilliant work and this, unfortunately, came to the attention of the vindictive Duke Ta-Jin. Guessing who the author was and still hungry for vengeance, he immediately dispatched armed guards to the island to capture and kill the lovers.
Ta-Jin’s soldiers came upon Chang as he was working his fields and slew him. Koong-se, who had watched the entire scene from afar, rushed into their pavilion and set it afire, determined to be with Chang in death as she had been in life. Thus they both perished. The Gods looking down on the tragedy could not help but be moved by Chang and Koong-se’s plight and their undying love and devotion to the end. And so they transformed Chang and Koong-se into two beautiful white doves. These immortal lovebirds can still be seen today flying high above the Willow Tree where Koong-se and Chang first pledged their love for one another.
(Note: This is, in all probability, a later addition to the tale since the birds do not appear on the earliest willow pattern plates. Nevertheless, the story lives on forever through the Willow-pattern plate and now has come home to roost as China has joined the fray and are producing plates with same design. )
And here are two poems written about the Blue Willow subject:
The Willow Pattern
by B. L. Bowers
Whilst we sit around the table,
Please allow me to relate,
The entrancing ancient fable
Of “The Willow Pattern Plate.”
Every picture tells a story,
Like the Willow Pattern Plate,
Where two lovers dwelt in glory,
And defied paternal hate.
By elopement from the castle
You observe upon the ridge,
Where the violent old rascal
Chases them across the bridge.
Tries to catch the rogue and whip him,
‘Ere he steals the daughter fair;
But the loving pair outstrip him,
Let him languish in despair.
Thrown upon their own resources,
In a junk they emigrate,
To a splendid little oasis,
Near the margin of the plate.
Dwell in peace, whilst unmolested,
In most perfect harmony;
Till at length they are arrested,
by his Nibs’ gendarmerie.
Then the tyrant lord appeals to
Law and lucre, with their pow’r;
Caught, confined, they have their meals too,
In that horrid little tow’r.
When the pair are executed,
To appease their lord irate,
To a pair of doves transmuted,
Still they fly upon the plate.
Every picture tells a story,
Like the Willow Pattern blue,
And true love will reign in glory,
To infinity! Adieu
The old poem:
Two birds flying high,
A Chinese vessel, sailing by.
A bridge with three men, sometimes four,
A willow tree, hanging o’er.
A Chinese temple, there it stands,
Built upon the river sands.
An apple tree, with apples on,
A crooked fence to end my song.
Have a good Day.