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Willow Pattern

To the right is a lordly mandarin's country seat. It is two storeys high to show the rank and wealth of the possessor; in the foreground is a pavilion, in the background an orange-tree, and to the right of the pavilion a peach-tree in full bearing. The estate is enclosed by an elegant wooden fence. At one end of the bridge is the famous willow-tree, and at the other the gardener's cottage, one storey high, and so humble that the grounds are wholly uncultivated, the only green thing being a small fir-tree at the back. At the top of the pattern (left-hand side) is an island, with a cottage; the grounds are highly cultivated, and much has been reclaimed from the water. The two birds are turtle-doves. The three figures on the bridge are the mandarin's daughter with a distaff nearest the cottage, the lovers with a boat in the middle, and nearest the willow-tree the mandarin with a whip.

The tradition.
The mandarin had an only daughter named Li-chi, who fell in love with Chang, a young man who lived in the island home represented at the top of the pattern, and who had been her father's secretary. The father overheard them one day making vows of love under the orange-tree, and sternly forbade the unequal match; but the lovers contrived to elope, lay concealed for a while in the gardener's cottage, and thence made their escape in a boat to the island home of the young lover. The enraged mandarin pursued them with a whip, and would have beaten them to death had not the gods rewarded their fidelity by changing them both into turtle-doves. The picture is called the willow pattern not only because it is a tale of disastrous love, but because the elopement occurred “when the willow begins to shed its leaves.”

Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894
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