Skip to main content

The Mystery Of The Willow Pattern’s Origin


 The background

‘The Willow pattern is a distinctive and elaborate chinoiserie pattern used on ceramic kitchen/housewares. It became popular at the end of the 18th century in England when, in its standard form, it was developed by English ceramic artists combining and adapting motifs inspired by fashionable hand-painted blue-and-white wares imported from China. Its creation occurred at a time when mass-production of decorative tableware, at Stoke-on-Trent and elsewhere, was already making use of engraved and printed glaze transfers, rather than hand-painting, for the application of ornament to standardized vessels (transferware). Many different Chinese-inspired landscape patterns were at first produced in this way, both on bone china or porcellanous wares, and on white earthenware or pearlware. The Willow pattern became the most popular and persistent of them, and in various permutations has remained in production to the present day. Characteristically the background color is white and the image blue, but various factories have used other colors in monochrome tints and there are Victorian versions with hand-touched polychrome coloring on simple outline transfers. ‘

The Romantic Fable

‘Once there was a wealthy Mandarin, who had a beautiful daughter (Koong-se). She had fallen in love with her father’s humble accounting assistant (Chang), angering her father. (It was inappropriate for them to marry due to their difference in social class.) He dismissed the young man and built a high fence around his house to keep the lovers apart. The Mandarin was planning for his daughter to marry a powerful Duke. The Duke arrived by boat to claim his bride, bearing a box of jewels as a gift. The wedding was to take place on the day the blossom fell from the willow tree.

On the eve of the daughter’s wedding to the Duke, the young accountant, disguised as a servant, slipped into the palace unnoticed. As the lovers escaped with the jewels, the alarm was raised. They ran over a bridge, chased by the Mandarin, whip in hand. They eventually escaped on the Duke’s ship to the safety of a secluded island, where they lived happily for years. But one day, the Duke learned of their refuge. Hungry for revenge, he sent soldiers, who captured the lovers and put them to death. The gods, moved by their plight, transformed the lovers into a pair of doves (possibly a later addition to the tale, since the birds do not appear on the earliest willow pattern plates).’



In the Wikipedia we read also : ‘In order to promote sales of Minton’s Willow pattern, various stories were invented based on the elements of the design. The most famous story usually runs as described above. The story is English in origin, and has no links to China.’


Wikipedia at ‘Willow Pattern’.



The Heaven And Earth Connection Thesis

 ‘So much for the story – but I venture to suggest it has been invented to explain the design, and is not its true origin. It may have been made up by someone entirely ignorant of its true meaning, but more probably was the explanation given to the uninitiated by the Hung brethren who circulated the design. These plates seen to have originated in South China at the end of the third quarter of the 18th century, that is to say, about the time of the rising of the Triad Society, and in the very districts in which it was strongest.  I suggest that they were like the Masonic china in England of the same period, but more subtle, and conveyed to the initiated a deeper meaning. That they became popular and were copied broadcast, being carried to England, we all know, but the facts concerning the design are significant, and the details fit in more accurately with the Triad ritual than they do with the alleged story. It is obvious that if these plates were circulated by Hung brethren in order to hearten each other during a time of persecution they would have to devise some innocuous stories to explain the design, and yet one which to the initiated would be sufficiently near to the original to remind them of obligations into which they have entered. It also seems probable that the Government officials were not hood-winked, but saw through the disguise, and made a point of destroying these plates where-ever found, and if so this would explain why a genuine Chinese original of this design has never been discovered in China, although long and diligent search has been made for it.’

The Hung Society’s Ritual Symbolism Embodied In The Pattern’s Design

‘The name ‘ Willow Pattern’ is quite intelligible if it refers to the city of Willows -Muk Yang City – the Heavenly City, but if it depends upon the existence of a solitary willow in the design, which has little to do with the story, a much better name could have been chosen. There are far more peach trees than willows in the design. The peaches are ‘Lucky fruit’ and the escape took place when the peach, and not the willow, was in bloom.

The explanation of the wall is most unconvincing, but Muk Yang City had a wall round it, and this fact is emphasized by the wall in the design (Note: to reach the city, one needs to go trough five mountain passes which represents the five senses), which runs right across the lower part of the plate.

The three figures on the bridge, are, I suggest, the three Buddhas, whose attributes are slightly disguised, or may have been misunderstood in the earlier versions, and later have been turned into a distaff, a box of jewels, and a whip. As representing the three Buddhas, their solitary state is perfectly explicable, but it is difficult to believe that any artist who was trying to illustrate a well known fairy story would resist the temptation to depict the indignant Duke rushing down the steps of the banquet hall in pursuit.

It is clear from the design that the fugitives are going on to an island, if there are moving at all, from which obviously there is no escape, and the pair of them would have been killed at once. Furthermore, in most examples there is no sign of precipitous flight. All three figures appear to be standing still and looking towards the island, and perhaps at the boat. A Chinese artist was perfectly able to depict people running, why then, since the story requires it, why did he not do so?

The story makes no attempts to explain the presence of the small building, or shrine, whereas if the plates refers to the Hung ceremony, it would be the shrine of the tablets of the ‘departed brethren’.

The old nurse may be a distorted memory of ‘the woman’ whom the Vanguard saw on his journey after he passed the Eight Immortals, but the rest of that section is most unconvincing. Why wait in the nurse’s house, near the father’s palace, the most obvious place in which the Mandarin would make inquiries, when there was a boat handy in which the fugitives could escape right away from danger? As ‘the woman’ in the hung ritual was met with before the Vanguard reached the boat, we may consider that the house of the nurse marks the spot where the Hung Heroes board the Hung boat, but the incidents as related in the story are most unlikely.

The Yang-tse Kiang, a famous river, and its inclusion in a popular tale need not have any special significance if it stood alone, but we are specially been told that they entered the Yang-tse after traveling for some time in the boat. Now the combination of Yang, meaning Willow, and of the name of the design, Willow Pattern, does call to mind Muk Yang, the City of Willows, which is the ultimate goal of those who set out in the Hung Boat. We therefore, cannot ignore the possibility that Yang-tse is drag into the story as a covert allusion for Muk Yang. The willow by the bridge which leads to the palace of the mandarin, suggests that that place is really Muk Yang, while the Peach Trees near by, which are carefully alluded to in the ritual, are also suggestive.

The tragedy at the end, particularly the burning of the house, recalls the destruction in real life of the Hung Society’s Shaolin monastery, and it is not justified by anything in the design.

The Mandarin starts the trouble, but it is the wicked Duke who finally destroy the lovers. In like manner, it was the Emperor who gave the orders for the destruction of the monks, but it was the Prefect who carried them out.

The doves are most significant; doves represent the soul, and in the story itself this fact in emphasized, for the transformation of the unfortunate victims into doves takes place after their death. I suggest that their appearance in the design was in order to supply the necessary hint to Hung brethren that the scene depicted was really the Hung Boat, bearing the souls of those lately slain in the rising (against the imperial order) to the isle of the Blest, and on to Muk Yang City.

If we consider this view probable, we shall find it worth to interpret the plate according to the Triad ritual, and we shall find that the ’order of time’ is completely reversed:

The Hung Boat has left the shore, and the Captain is standing on the bow. It is approaching the Isle of the Blest, and near the foot of the bridge, on the island, are the tablets of the departed brethren. On the bridge are the three Buddhas, while behind lies Muk Yang, with its temples, orchards, and great containing wall. Its name is conveyed by the presence of the willow at the entrance, but it has no living person in sight, for as we learn in the ritual, its houses are for the Hung Heroes when they shall have overturned (the) Ts’ing (dynasty) and restore (the) Ming (dynasty). Finally the presence of the two doves shows that we are dealing with the journey of the soul to the land beyond the grave.

These plates began to appear in South China just at the time when the defeated Hung brethren were prescribed and needed heartening, and that design faithfully depicts the journey of a Hung Hero to Paradise.’

Tian Di Hui: Heaven and Earth Society



Extract from

J.M.S.Ward and W.G.Sterling’s

‘The Hung Society or the Society of Heaven and Earth’,

vol 2, Pages 38 to 40.


The Mystery Of The Willow Pattern’s Origin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

all rights reserved Via Hygeia 2022