A reader sent me an email yesterday, prompting some memories and a connection between Liuzhou and my childhood which I had all but forgotten, but then it has been a long time.
My correspondent, noting that Liuzhou means something like “place of the willows”, wanted to know where in town she could buy willow pattern plates.
When I was a kid, my father’s great-aunt was still alive and about once every couple of months or so we would be required to get on our finery, adopt our best behaviour, and pay an official visit. She was a true relic of the Victorian era and lived stubbornly alone in what I was certain was actually a museum, rather than a domicile.
The sitting room where we were received by her majesty and treated to afternoon tea with cucumber sandwiches and buttery scones (not together) was littered with bric-a-brac of all sorts. Some were fascinating, some scary. I particularly remember being intrigued by what I think were clams shells containing miniature replicas of famous buildings of the world – Rome’s Colosseum, the Eiffel Tower, St. Pauls Cathedral etc.
And, of course, there was a dresser full of highly decorative plates and serving dishes, including several examples of Willow Pattern.
This, I was told, was what everyone in China ate from. (I remember being confused as to what they ate from these plates, because I was simultaneously being lectured on not wasting food and eating the more nasty things for dinner because the starving Chinese would lap them up.)
Also, my great-great aunt would tell us the ancient Chinese story behind the design.
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.
Sadly. years later, but before I ever came to China, I learned the truth.
Chinese Willow Pattern ain’t Chinese, at all. It was invented in the late 18th century in England, probably in the famous Spode pottery works. It is unknown in China.
And the story? Yes, English, too. It, too, is unknown in China.
So, to my correspondent,who turns out to be English, if you want genuine Willow Pattern, go home. There is none here.
P.S. If you are interested in Chinese pottery which is from China, then I recommend a trip to the town of Jingdezhen (景德鎮) in Jiangxi Province. The town is famous for its 1,700 year old porcelain industry. There are dozens, if not more, workshops where you can watch the craftsmen and women at work. And, of course, buy the results of their labours. Be careful. Some prices are astronomical, but there is also plenty of choice in lower price brackets.
I’m not particularly interested in porcelain, but I found the place fascinating. On the edge of town there was a large pottery workshop are operating as a living museum, where they only produced their wares by the ancient, traditional methods. I spent hours in there watching the artists patiently and carefully decorating and carving. I don’t know if it’s still there. It was twenty years ago. And yes, I did buy some.
Porcelain workshop in Jingdezhen