The Willow Pattern Story

I’ve been surrounded by blue and white china my whole life. Mum is a massive fan – the kitchen has always been packed with jugs, tureens, plates, dishes, and more, sometimes chipped but always loved. Thinking on it, it has been a massive influence on me, the idea that something utilitarian (a plate) can also have aesthetic value. This was drilled into me at an early age when I used to have to eat my food to see which Peter Rabbit plate I had. Then there’s The Dining Room Shop – Mum’s shop – which has always had gorgeous stuff – some really quite rare and beautiful (I’ve always liked the old Wedgwood, personally, especially the quite plain Jacobean (?) stuff).

Nowadays it’s a sort of collective term for knock-offs – usually transfers – of various other patterns. But Willow Pattern is named after an original Chinese design, first engraved by Thomas Minton in 1780. He was then followed by Royal Worcester, Spode, Adams, Wedgwood, the whole gang (Burgess and Leigh’s modern Willow has been in continuous production since 1922).

There’s a story behind the original pattern, and it’s quite beautiful. Look at the plate first. It might look like a single image, but there’s a whole narrative happening inside it.

Once upon a time, there was a very grand Mandarin (that’s his palace under the big tree) who had a stunning daughter, Koong-se. She was so beautiful that he had knew he could do very well out of marrying her to the right person.

He also had a secretary, Chang. A personable young man who, while doing the Mandarin’s acccounts, full head over heels with Koong-se, and she with him. It was proper love too. Not an infatuation but an all-consuming need. When he found out, the Mandarin was livid. How could this lowly secretary ever dream he was suitable for his daughter? Something had to be done.

Poor Chang was banished, and a huge fence was build around the gardens of the Mandarin’s palace – you can see it at the bottom of the dish – so that Chang could not get in, and Koong-se was trapped inside, a bird in a gilded cage.

One day she was standing at the water’s edge when she saw something in the water – a shell, with tiny little sails on it. She picked it out of the water and found inside a poem, and bead that she had given her lover. Chang was outside, and he still loved her.

But then – terrible news – the Mandarin came in to tell her that he had found a suitable match. Ta-jin, a powerful warrior Duke. Not only that, but he was on his way to meet his betrothed, with loads of jewels for her (that’s him on the boat on the left hand side, making his way to the palace).

Chang had a plan though. Disguised as a servant, he snuck in to that night’s banquet, and up to Koong-se’s room. They kissed and decided to make a break for it. The Mandarin and Ta-Jin had drunk themselves into a stupor, and the two lovers quietly crept out. But just as they were leaving, the Mandarin woke up and tore after them (that’s him chasing them over the bridge – she’s holding jewels and I think the Mandarin has a whip).

They just managed to escape, and hid with a maid who the Magistrate had already fired for conspiring with the lovers. Koong-se had given the casket of jewels to Chang, so the Mandarin, who was also a magistrate, swore that he would use the jewels as a pretext to execute Chang as a thief when he caught him.

One night the Mandarin’s spies reported that a man was hiding in a house by the river (on the plate it’s just behind the boat) and the Mandarin’s guards raided the house. But Chang had jumped into the ragging torrent and Koong-se thought that he had drowned.

Some days later the guards returned to search the house again. While Koong-se’s maid talked to them, Chang came by boat to the window and took Koong-se away to safety.

They settled on a distant island, and over the years Chang became famous for his writings. This was to prove his undoing. The Mandarin heard about him and sent guards to destroy him. Chang was put to the sword and Koong-se set fire to the house while she was still inside.

The two birds on that plate? The gods, touched by their love, immortalised them as two beautiful doves.


There’s another story to the plate – a secret Shaolin legend.The Shaolin Monastery is burned by the Imperial troops of the Manchu rulers, called invaders by Chinese nationalist and later communist factions. Souls of the dead monks take a boat to the isle of the Blest. On the bridge are three Buddha awaiting the dead souls: Sakyamuni, the Buddha of the Past; Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future; and, Amitabha, the Ruler of the Western Paradise. Beyond them is the City of Willows – Buddhist Heaven. The doves are the monks’ souls on the journey from human to immortal life.

[I might get Mum to check this 😉 – oh, and with all fables and legends, there’s always another version, so apologies if this isn’t the one you know]

10 responses to “The Willow Pattern Story

  1. Jack is absolutely correct with his willow pattern story and I have learned something new as I did not know about the Shaolin legend that is associated to the pattern.
    Apart from the willow pattern, most of the ancient chinoiserie designs have a symbolic meaning – for example the peacock stands for beauty and prosperity. A goldfish bowl depicted on a Chinese plate is another symbol of prosperity.

  2. Just to be considered web design which have been. Bhangoo
    had to web design create website which has a traditionally quadratic
    bias, but you’re likely to have a website. Today
    we are given some free which will help to convey an idea about your product in the company and leave, and still remember it.
    Nonetheless, it might be difficult for someone with a large sales page template found at Viral
    Traffic Anarchy. Approximately each finished page can change the site, you must bear in mind that colours,
    fonts, etc.

  3. Hi
    I am thinking about taking pro hormones, do you think this is good idea
    for advanced bodybuilder like me? People are satisfied with
    the results after prohormones cycles, just google for – prohormones factory – worth a

  4. Hi Dysonology,

    Would you know by any chance why did they start putting these chinese made up stories onto their porcelain? I thought that this was because chinese porcelain was amazing- thin and strong, and beautiful. And everyone knew that british were not able to make the same kind of quality. So they started putting these chinese stories and patterns to make it look more chinese so that people buy more of it. Is it true?

    • Hi tlovers,

      Well, yes – Chinese porcelain is beautiful, but as well as exporting that, they also used to (and still do) export a lot of tea, spice and so on. At that time it was a huge deal. Tea was this exotic drink, Chinese stuff was highly valued, so we started importing that and other cultural things from China and the far East as well as more obvious trade goods. At the same time of course, these imports began to influence other areas of our aesthetics. We looked at how they wove silks, arranged flowers, painted and more – there’s a good summary of it here:

      Having some sort of Chinese ornament marked you out as a sophisticated, cool, educated, aware. So no surprise then that the most popular patterns were imitated, reproduced and used as inspiration by British and European manufacturers. Some were cheap copies and simple transfer prints, but others were simply their attempt at putting Chinese design onto European plates and tea sets (since the Chinese ones were quite different). Not because they were necessarily covering poor quality china and porcelain, more because it’s nice to have pretty patterns and designs on a plate, and willow pattern was one of the most fashionable ones you see on (typically) blue and white china.

      Hope that helps!


  5. i have a willow patern milk small pitcher and all the original character how much its value

    • Best bet would be to take it to a local auctioneer or antique shop for an appraisal. Underneath it should be a maker’s stamp which you may be able to look up online.

  6. Two birds flying high.little ship sailing by, wooden bridge hung with clover three men walking over, Chinese lantern little tree and there’s the cottage by the sea.

  7. Now 91, my mother taught me this when I was very young!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s