The Blue Willow Pattern Story
The Blue Willow Pattern Story in full. There are some shortened versions of the story, but though it takes a little longer to read, I’d like to tell you the complete story of the blue willow pattern scene, which has been the stock pattern for millions of plates produced in China and England for at least the last 200 years.
The name China has been given to many kinds of pottery and porcelain indicating their origin, and was commonly used in the past to refer to the best tea sets in the house, ornaments on the mantelpiece, crockery in the cupboard or of course to the country in South East Asia. The story depicted on the blue willow pattern plate is that of an old Chinese legend, and once you hear that story, you will never forget it.
The familiar old blue Willow pattern plate can still be seen today and has been one of the bestselling plates down through the last couple of centuries. The name for the plate is derived from the figure of the tree which occupies the centre of the plate, and which is intended to represent a willow in the spring, unfolding its blossoms before its leaves appear.
Who hasn’t stared at these mysterious figures on the willow pattern plate, and in childish curiosity, wondered what these three dimly outlined people were doing on that bridge. Where did they come from, and where on earth are they going to? And what about the boat man with only one oar on the white stream? Who lives in the houses in that charmed island? And what do those disproportionately large doves signify?
Whether the pattern of this classic scene is on a flat over the dish or hollowed out into a soup tureen, those three blue people are always rushing over that bridge, the boat man is sitting listlessly on the stream, and the doves are always watching over the scene in the sky.
So take a good look at the plate again and I’ll tell you the story of what is said to be the Chinese equivalent of Robinson Crusoe to us. It is the story of the Willow Pattern Plate.
On the right-hand side of the plate you can see a Chinese house of unusual size and magnificence. The wealth of the owner is indicated by its being two storeys high – a rare thing in the past in China, and by the existence of buildings at the back, and by the large and rare trees which are growing on all sides of the main building. This house belonged to a mandarin of great power and influence, who had amassed considerable wealth in serving the Emperor. The work was actually performed by an active secretary, named Chang, while the business of the master consisted in receiving bribes from the merchants, at whose smuggling and illegal traffic he winked, in exact proportion as he was paid for it. Suddenly however the wife of the Mandarin died and he requested the Emperor to allow him to retire from his arduous duties. He was particularly urgent in this request because the merchants had began to talk loudly of the unfairness and dishonesty of the Chinese manager of the customs. The death of his wife was a fortunate excuse for the old Mandarin, and in accordance with his petition, an order signed by the vermillion pencil of his Imperial Majesty the Emperor was issued to a merchant who had paid a handsome bribe to his predecessor.
The mandarin retired to the house represented on the plate, taking with him his only daughter, Koong-see, and his secretary Chang, whose services he had retained for a few months in order to put his affairs in such a way as to bear scrutiny, if from any unforeseen circumstances, he should be called to produce them. When the faithful Chang had completed this duty, he was discharged. Too late, however! The youth had seen and loved the mandarin’s daughter. At sunset, Koong-see was seen lingering with her maid on the steps leading to the banquet room, and as twilight came on, she stole away down the path to a distant part of the grounds. There, the young lovers, on the last evening of Chang’s engagement, vowed mutual promises of love and constancy. Many an evening after work, when Chang was supposed to be miles away, lovers’ voices could be heard amongst the orange trees, and as darkness came on, the huge peonies which grew upon the fantastic wall had their gorgeous petals shaken off as Chang scrambled through the crimson blossoms. With the assistance of the lady’s handmaid, this all went on without the knowledge of the old mandarin – for the lovers knew only too well the harsh fashion of the country, and that their stations in life being unequal, the father would never consent to the union. Chang’s merit, however, was known, and the affectionate wishes of the young people pictured a time when such an obstacle would be removed by his success.
By some means, at last, the knowledge of these meetings came to the old man, and from that time, he forbade his daughter to go beyond the walls of the house. Chang was commanded to discontinue his visits upon pain of death, and the old man ordered a high wall of wood to be built across the pathway from the extremity of the wall to the water’s edge. This wooden fence can usually be clearly seen in the foreground of the picture.
The lady’s handmaid was dismissed too, and in her place came an old domestic, whose heart was as withered as her shrivelled face.
The old man built a suite of apartments adjoining his banquet room for his daughter’s imprisonment. These had terraces which jutted out over the water’s edge, so that Koong-see could securely take exercise in the fresh air. These apartments had no exit except for through the banquet hall, where the mandarin spent the most of this time. Being completely surrounded by water, the father rested content that he should have no further trouble from clandestinely agreeing to this. As the windows of the sitting room looked out over the water, any attempted communication by means of a boat could once be seen and frustrated by him.
To complete the disappointment of the lovers, he went still further – he betrothed his daughter to a wealthy friend, a Ta-jin, a duke of high degree, whom she had never seen. The Ta-jin was her equal in wealth and every other respect but age, with the gentleman being considerably older than Koong-see. The nuptials were determined without any consultation of the lady, and the wedding was to take place ‘at the fortunate age of the moon, when the peach tree should blossom in the spring.’ The Willow tree was in blossom then, the peach tree had scarcely formed its buds.
Poor Koong-see shuddered at what she called her doom, and trembled as she watched the buds of the peach tree, whose branches grew close to the walls of her prison. But her heart was cheered by a happy omen – a bird came and built its nest in the corner above her window.
One day, when she had sat on the narrow terrace for several hours, watching the little bird carrying straws and feathers to its future home, the shades of evening came upon her, and her thoughts returned to former meetings associated with that hour. Consequently she did not retire as usual, but disconsolately gazed upon the waters. Her gazing was disturbed by a half coconut shell, which was fitted up with a miniature sail, and which floated gently close to her feet. With the help of her parasol she fetched it from the water. Her delighted surprise at its contents caused her to exclaim so loudly that the old servant came rushing to her side, nearly giving the game away. Koong-see quickly made up a plausible excuse, and dismissed the woman. As soon as she was gone, she anxiously examined the little boat. In it she found a bead she had given to her lover – sufficient evidence as to where the little boat had come from. Chang had launched it on the other side of the water. There was also a piece of bamboo paper, and in light characters were written some Chinese verses.
‘The nest you wingèd artist builds,
some robber bird shall tear away;
so yields her hopes the affianced bride,
the wealthy lord’s reluctant prey.
‘He must have been near me,’ she murmured, ‘for he must have seen my bird’s nest by the peach tree”. She read on: –
the fluttering bird prepares a home
in which the spoiler soon shall dwell.
Forth goes the weeping bride, constrained,
100 years the triumph swell.
Mourn for the tiny architect,
a stronger bird has taken its nest
mourn for the hapless stolen bride
How vain the hope to soothe her breast!
Koong-see burst into tears, but hearing her father approaching, she hid the little boat in the folds of her loose flowing robe. When he was gone, she read the verses again, and again wept over them. Upon further examination she found on the back of these words, in the peculiar metaphorical style of Oriental poetry: –
‘As this boat sails to you, so all my thoughts tend to the same centre; but when the willow blossom drips from the bough, and the peach tree unfolds its buds, your faithful Chang will sink with the lotus blooms beneath the deep waters. There will he see the circles on the smooth river, when the willow blossom falls upon it from the bough – broken away like his love from the parent stem.’
As a sort of postscript was added, ‘cast your thoughts upon the waters as I have done, and I shall hear your words.’
Koong-see well understood such metaphorical language, and trembled as she thought of Chang’s threat of self-destruction (Suicide was estimated rather a virtue than a crime in the codes of morals of the Chinese at that time.) Having no other writing materials, she sought her ivory tablets, and with the needle she had been using in embroidery, she scratched her answer in the same strain in which lover had addressed her. This was her reply: –
‘Do not wise husbandmen gather the fruits they fear will be stolen? The sunshine lengthens, and the vineyard is threatened to be spoiled by the hands of strangers. The fruit you most prize will be gathered, when the willow blossom droops upon the bough.’
Much doubting, she placed her tablets in the little boat, and after the manner of her countrywomen, she set a stick of frankincense in too. When it became dark she lighted the frankincense and launched the little boat upon the stream. The current gradually drew it away, and it floated safely till she could trace it no longer in the distance. That no accident should have overturned the boat or extinguished the light, she had been taught to believe was a promise of good fortune and success, so with a lighter heart she closed her casements and retired to rest.
Days and weeks passed by, but no more little boats appeared. All communication seemed to have been cut off, and Koong-see began to doubt the truth of the infallible omen. The blossom on the willow tree – for she watched many an hour – seemed about to wither, when a circumstance occurred which gave her additional grounds for this distrust.
The old mandarin entered his daughter’s apartment one morning in highly good humour. In his hands he carried a box full of rare jewels, which he said were a present from the Ta-jin, or duke, to whom he had betrothed her. He congratulated her on her good fortune, and left her, saying that the wealthy man was coming that day to perform some of the preliminaries of the wedding, by taking food and wine in her father’s house. Koong-see’s hopes all vanished, and she found her only relief in tears. Like the netted bird, she saw the snare drawing closer and closer, but possessed no power to escape the toils.
The duke came, his servants beating gongs before him, and shouting out his achievements in war. The number of his titles was great, and the lanterns on which they were inscribed, were magnificent. Owing to his rank, he was borne in a sedan, to which were attached eight bearers, showing his rank to be that of a Viceroy. The old mandarin gave him a suitable reception, and dismissed his followers. The gentlemen then sat down to the introduction feast according to custom, and many were the ‘cups of salutation’ which passed between them, till at last they became boisterous in the merriment. The noise of revelry and the shoutings of the military duke seemed to have attracted a stranger to the house, who sought alms at the door of the banquet room. His tale being noticed, he took from the porch an outer garment which had been left there by one of the servants, and thus disguised, he spread the screen across the lower part of the banquet hall, passing forwards, he came to Koong-see’s apartment, and in another moment the lovers were locked in each other’s arms. It was Chang who had crossed the banquet room. He begged Koong-see to fly with him ‘for’ said he, ‘the Willow blossom already droops upon the bough.’ She handed him the box of jewels which the Duke had presented her with that day. Realising that the servants were taking the chance to get drunk elsewhere, Koong-see and Chang stole behind the screen – passed the door – descended the steps, and gained the foot of the bridge, beside the willow tree.
Not till then did the old mandarin become sensible to what was going on. He caught a glimpse of his daughter in the garden and raising a shout, staggered out after them himself.
It is the three figures you see on the bridge that represent this part of the story. The first is the lady Koong-see carrying a distaff, a stick or spindle used in spinning which was also the emblem of virginity. The second is Chang, the lover, carrying off the box of jewels. The third is the old mandarin, the lady’s father, whose paternal authority and anger are supposed to be indicated by the web which he is carrying in his hand.
The old mandarin, tipsy as he was, had some difficulty in keeping up the pursuit, and Chang and Koong-see eluded him without much effort. The Ta-jin fell into a rage when he heard what had happened, and so great was his fury that he frothed at the mouth, and was nearly smothered in his drunken passion. The few servants who were sober enough to have successfully pursued the fugitives were detained to attend to the duke, who was supposed to be in a fit, until the lovers had made good their escape.
Every suggested plan was adopted during the following days, to discover where the undutiful daughter had fled. When the servants returned, evening after evening, and brought no intelligence which afforded any hope of detecting her place of retirement, the old mandarin gave himself up to despair, and became a prey to low spirits and ill humour. The duke however, was more active and persevering, and employed spies in every village from miles around. He made a solemn vow of vengeance against Chang, and congratulated himself that, by his power as magistrate of the district, when Chang could be discovered, he would exercise his plenary authority, and put him to death for the theft of the jewels. The lady, too, he said, should die, unless she fulfilled the wishes of her parent, not for his own gratification, but for the sake of public justice.
In the meantime, the lovers had retired to a humble tenement not too far from the mandarin’s establishment, and had found safety in the concealment afforded to them by the handmaid of Koong-see, who had been sacked over the couple’s clandestine meetings in the gardens of Koong-see’s former home. The husband of this handmaid, who worked for the mandarin as a gardener, and Chang’s sister, were witnesses of the betrothal and a simple marriage of the fugitives. Koong-see and Chang passed the time in close concealment, and never appeared abroad, except after nightfall, when they wandered across the rice grounds, or, from the terraced gardens on the mountainsides, breezed the rich perfume of the olea fragrans, or the more delicate scent of the flowers of the orange with a citron groves. From the gardener they learned the steps taken by the pursuers, and were prepared to elude them for a considerable time. But at last the mandarin issued a proclamation, that if his daughter would forsake Chang, and returned to her old home, he would forgiveher. The young man expressed himselve so exceedingly joyful at the signs of his masters relenting, that suspicion was attached to him, and the poor house in which he resided was ordered to be watched.
The reader will find this house significantly represented at the foot of the bridge.
This house is only one storey in height, and of the most simple style of architecture. The ground above it is uncultivated, the tree that grows beside it is a non-productive species, being a common fir, and the whole place has a sad air of poverty and dullness, which becomes more striking when the richly ornate and sheltered mansion on the other side of the bridge is compared with it.
It having been agreed, that, in case any suspicion fell upon the house, the young gardener should not return at the usual hour, Chang and his wife suspected that all was not right when he did not enter at the customary time in the evening. The gardener’s wife also saw strange people loitering about, and in great sorrow communicated her fears to the newly married pair. Later in the evening, a soldier entered the house, and after having read the proclamation of the mandarin, he pointed out the great advantages which would arise to all parties who assisted in restoring Koong-see, and bringing Chang to justice. He told her, moreover, that the house was guarded the front, and reminded her that there could be no escape, as the river surrounded it in every other direction.
The attachment of the gardener’s wife for her old mistress was, however, sufficient to enable her to retain her presence of mind. After appearing exceedingly curious as to what reward she would obtain if she was successful in discovering Chang, she led him to suppose that he was not there, but in a friend’s house, to which she would conduct him if he would first obtain a distinct promise of reward for her, in the handwriting of the mandarin and the duke. The soldier promised to obtain the writing, but told her, to her great disappointment, that he must leave the guard about the house. She dared not object to this, or she felt she would be convicted, but she talked as loudly as possible of the impropriety of rough soldiers being left without their commanding officer, and thus gave the trembling lovers the opportunity of overhearing what was happening.
As soon as the officer had gone, a brief conference was held between the lovers and their protector.
A few minutes – an hour at most – was all they could call their own. A score of plans were suggested, examined, then cast aside. There was the suspicious guard, who were ordered to let no person, under any circumstances pass, in front; and behind was the broad, rapid river. Escape seemed impossible, and, for Chang at least, detection and arrest was death. To attempt to fight through the guard was madness in a man unarmed – and what would become of Koong-see? What was to be done?
It was almost impossible to swim the roaring river even when it was most quiet; but though it was swollen with the early rains, the river was the only chance.
‘But you will be seen, and be butchered in the water before you climb the other bank,’ suggested the gardener’s wife.
‘It is my only chance,’ said Chang thoughtfully, as he stripped off the pouqua, or loose outer garment commonly worn by the higher classes, or by those who seek for literary honours.
Koong-see clung to him, but his resolution was firm, and bidding her be of good cheer – that he would get across, and come again to her, he jumped from the window into the stream below, with Koong-see’s eternal constancy ringing in his ears.
The struggle was frightful, and long before Chang had reached the middle of the torrent, Koong-see’s eyelids quivered, and closed: she fainted and saw no more. Her faithful attendant laid her upon a couch, and seeing the colour returning to her lips, gazed out of the window on the river. Nothing of Chang was to be seen; the rapid torrent had carried him away. Where?
Time passed on, every moment seeming an age, and darkness began to fall. The poor gardener’s wife hung over her pallid mistress, and dreaded her questions when consciousness would be restored. The officer had been absent sufficiently long to visit the duke and mandarin: Hark! – He was even now knocking at the door.
The soldier knocked again before the gardener’s wife could bring herself to leave Koong-see, but no other course was left to her; and scarcely knowing why, she securely closed the door of the apartment behind, and drew the screen across to conceal it. The soldier rudely questioned her as to her delay in opening the door, and showed her the document which he had obtained, in which large sums of money and the Emperor’s favour were promised to any person who should give up Chang, and restore Koong-see to her father. She made pretence that she could not read the writing, and having given the soldier some spirit made from rice, she managed to pass a very considerable time in irrelevant matters. When the officer became impatient, she told him that she thought it would be useless to attempt to catch Chang till it was quite dark, when he would be walking in a neighbouring rice ground. Two hours were thus whiled away, when the officer was called out by one of the men under him, who told him that a messenger had arrived from the Ta-jin, enquiring why the villain Chang had not been brought before him, and requiring an answer from the commanding officer himself. This gave the gardener’s wife time to see what had become of Koong-see. She had fancied she heard some noise in the apartment, and with intense curiosity she pushed the screen aside, opened the door, and peeped into the room: Koong-see was not there. There were marks of wet feet and dripping garments on the floor, and on the narrow ledge of the window, to which she rushed. A boat had just that instant been pushed off from the shore into the river, and in it, there was no doubt, were her mistress and her husband, the brave Chang. The darkness concealed them from the eyes of friends or enemies, as the rushing river carried them rapidly away.
The gardener’s wife gently close the window, and instantly removed all traces of what had happened. She then cheerfully returned to the other part of the house, and waited for the officer. He came, stimulated by a reproof for his delay, and commanded his soldiers to search the house, which they did most willingly, as upon much occasions they were accustomed to possess themselves of everything which could be considered valuable. The search was in vain, however, for they neither found traces of the fugitives, nor anything worth stealing. The jewels were with Chang on the river, and the gardener was but a poor man. They then visited the rice ground, but were equally unsuccessful. They suspected that the woman had played a trick, but she looked quite unconscious, and in a very innocent manner persuaded the officer that she had been imposed upon, and that she was sorry that she had given him so much trouble.
The boat with its precious cargo floated down the river all that night, requiring no exertion from Chang, who sat silently watching at the prow, while his young wife slept in the cabin. When the grey of early-morning peeped over the distant mountains, Chang still sat there, and the boat was still rapidly buoyed onwards by the current. Soon after daylight they entered the main river, the Yang-si-te-keang, and passage then became more dangerous, requiring considerable management and exertion from the boatman. Before the sun was well up, they had joined crowds of boats, in company with people who lived wholly upon the rivers, but who had been engaged in taking westward the usual tribute of salt and rice to his Imperial Majesty’s treasury. To one of the boatmen he sold a jewel, and from another he purchased some food with the coin.
Thus they floated onwards for several days towards the sea, but having at length approached the place where the mandarins were accustomed to examine all boats outward bound, Chang moored his floating home beside an island in the broad river. It was just a small piece of ground, covered with reeds – but here the young pair resolved to settle down, and to spend the rest of their days in peace. The jewels were sold in the neighbouring towns, in such a way as not to excite suspicion, and with the funds thus procured, the persevering Chang was able to obtain all that was necessary, and to purchase a free right to the little island. It is told of Koong-see, that with her own hands she assisted in building the house; while her husband, applying himself to agricultural pursuits, brought the island into a high state of cultivation.
Looking again at the plate, one will find the history of the island significantly recorded by the simple artist.
The ground is broken up into lumps, indicating recent cultivation, and the trees around it are smaller in size, indicating their youth. The diligence of Chang is sufficiently evidenced by the manner in which every scrap of ground which could be added to the island, is reclaimed from the water. To illustrate this, narrow reefs of land are seen jutting out into the stream.
The remainder of the story is soon told. Chang having achieved a competence by his cultivation of the land, returned to his literary pursuits, and wrote a book about agriculture, which gained him great reputation in the province where he was living, and was the means of securing the patronage of the wealthy literary men of the neighbourhood for his children – one of him became a great sage – after the death of his father and mother, which occurred in the manner now to be related.
The reputation of Chang’s book, if it gained him friends, revealed his whereabouts to his greatest enemy the Tai-jin, or duke, whose passion for revenge was unabated. Nor did the duke long delay the accomplishment of his object. Having waited upon the military mandarin of the river station, and having sworn, by cutting a live cock’s head off, that Chang was the person who had stolen his jewels, he obtained an escort of soldiers to arrest Chang – and with these the Tai-jin attacked the island, having given secret instructions to seize Koong-see, and kill Chang without mercy.
The peaceful inhabitants of the island were quite unprepared; but Chang, having refused the party admittance, was stabbed and mortally wounded. His servants, who were much attached to him, fought bravely to defend their master, but when they saw him fall, they threw down their weapons and fled. Koong-see, in despair, rushed to her apartments, which she set on fire, and perished in the flames.
The gods – (so runs the tale) – cursed the duke for his cruelty with a vile disease, with which he went down to his grave unfriended and unpitied. No children scattered scented paper over his grave – but in pity to Koong-see and her lover, they were transformed into two immortal doves, emblems of the constancy which had rendered them beautiful in life, and in death undivided.
© Arranged and adapted by Viola Dono 2017. All rights reserved.
Reference: The Family Friend Volume 1 (1850) Houlston and Stoneman, 65 Paternoster Row, London.