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  • The Story of the Story:The Willow Pattern Plate in Children's Literature
  • Ben Harris McClary (bio)

The first known publication of the "willow pattern story" was in a British family magazine, The Family Friend, in 1849. The introduction asked:

Who is there, since the earliest dawn of intelligent perception, who has not inquisitively contemplated the mysterious figures on the willow-pattern plate? Who, in childish curiosity, has not wondered what those three persons in dim blue outline did upon that bridge; whence they came, and whither they were flying? What does the boatman without oars on that white stream? Who people the houses in that charmed island?—or why do those disproportionate doves forever kiss each other, as if intensely joyful over some good deed done? Who is there through whose mind such thoughts as these have not passed, as he found his eye resting upon the willow-pattern plates as they lay upon the dinner-table, or brightly glittered on the cottage plate-rail?

Appealing to the reader's sense of nostalgia, the writer, "J. B. L.," continued:

The old willow-pattern plate! . . . It has mingled with our earliest recollections; it is like the picture of an old friend and companion, whose portrait we see everywhere, but of whose likeness we never grow weary.

The commentator concluded, declaring the "story" of the willow pattern "is said to be to the Chinese, what our Jack the Giant-Killer or Robinson Crusoe is to us."1

Contrary to J. B. L.'s last statement, the willow pattern was not a direct product of the oriental mind; it seems instead to have been a product of western interest in the East. The chinoiserie craze, which had been the province of the aristocracy, crested in [End Page 56] 1760, according to Hugh Honour, but, filtering down through the strata of society, in its wane it left the lower classes infatuated by anything tinged with orientalism.2 This interest prompted Thomas Minton, a Staffordshire potter, in 1780 to devise a crowded oriental-patterned plate which almost immediately captured the imagination of the British public. Known as the willow pattern because of the centrally placed willow tree shown in blossom in spring before its leaves develop, the design soon appeared in imitation among the wares of other western pottery makers and, most historians of the art declare, was carried to China, where it was copied for the British and American export trade, shortly becoming one of the staples of that lucrative market.

The evidence suggests that the story developed out of the plate design—rather than the reverse. Indeed, in nineteenth-century popular literature, one encounters several widely differing stories derived from the willow pattern plate,3 but The Family Friend version, through repetition, has become the story.

A child's rhyme of indefinite origin—but apparently predating the first prose version of the episodic adventure—seems to have been the first telling of this story. In part, the rhyme, referring to the willow pattern plate as "she," declared:

So she tells me a legend centuries oldOf a Mandarin rich in lands and gold,Of Koong-Shee fair and Chang the good,Who loved each other as lovers should.How they hid in the gardener's hut awhile,Then fled away to the beautiful isleThough a cruel father pursued them there,And would have killed the hopeless pair,But a kindly power, by pity stirred,Changed each into a beautiful bird.

Here is the orange tree where they talked,Here they are running away,And over all at the top you seeThe birds making love always.4 [End Page 57]

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Practical Puzzle.—No. 1. Chinese Maze.—The Willow-Pattern Plate.*

[End Page 58]

By 1849 when The Family Friend published "The Story of the Common Willow-Pattern Plate," the design had become the stereotype of China in most western minds. It was a household feature as no other china pattern had—or has—ever been. This careful explanation of the "picture," thus, had a wide appeal and a ready audience among Victorian readers.

The story which J. B. L. wrote and illustrated with parts...


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