Blue Willow - An Ancient Love Story
The Famous Pattern Known As Blue Willow
A Brief History Of Blue Willow China
For thousands of years in ancient China, a love story circulated among the nomads and merchants along the Silk Road, a love story so beautiful, it had to be true, because it never went away. Eventually, bits and pieces of the story began to show up in various pieces of pottery. Among the best known were those known as Early Canton. There would always be various parts of the story in those pieces, such as the blue willow tree, the house, the peach tree in blossom, the bridge, the two lovers, the river, the boat, the island, the two turtle doves, but rarely did one find all of the pieces of the story on one piece of pottery. It wasn't until the late 1700's that a British pottery maker in England by the name of Josiah Spode standardized the pattern, and all of the pieces of the story began to be represented on each item of pottery. Since then, the pattern, displaying its lovely and touching story of two young lovers, has never disappeared from the market place. Once people know the story, they want the pattern, perhaps the only pottery pattern in the world known specifically for a love story. A few of the old English pieces made in the 1700's still exist and are highly prized by collectors. I, personally once had over 1,500 rare pieces in my collection. While I have long ago shared many of these pieces with museums and collectors, I still maintain a beautiful set for entertaining. It never fails to set a memorable evening when I serve dinner that is preceded by the story I am about to tell you.
The Love Story Begins
Long ago, in the time of ancient Chinese emperors, there lived a vastly wealthy warlord named Tso Ling. His wealth was legendary, and his power went unchallenged throughout the lands that he controlled. Tso Ling was not cruel with his power, and it was for his generally balanced nature that peace ruled the land. Tso Ling had a great house built for himself, the likes of which no one had ever seen. There were great and wondrous gardens planted around his house, and many people were employed to maintain the beauty of these gardens as well as the internal workings of the vast estate. Tso Ling also was blessed by the gods with a beautiful daughter whom he named Kwang Se. Her beauty grew with her years, and as time passed, her beauty became as legendary as was her father’s wealth.
Among the many people employed by Tso Ling to run his vast estate, there was a young accountant named Chang. He was a handsome young man who was quite versed in the arts. One day he saw the lovely Kwang Se walking in the garden pathway as Chang was conferring with one of the gardeners, and it was love at first sight. Chang made sure to find his way to that same spot each day in order that he might someday find the proper excuse to be permitted to speak with her. He concocted a plan in which he would write a poem and leave it near the seat whereon she sat to gaze out over the gardens. Then, when she found it, he would politely ask if anyone had found his missing poem. And so it was that Kwang Se did indeed find the poem that Chang had written. She even read it aloud to her governess, who was ever present with Kwang Se, and this gave Chang greater confidence to approach them as he pretended to be looking for something he had lost.
Kwang Se liked the friendly face that stood before her governess, as Chang, barely ignoring the beautiful Kwang Se, inquired as to whether or not she might have seen a small scroll lying nearby. He recited his rehearsed story that he had written this poem and had lain it down while discussing a point with the gardener, and he was most certain that it must be somewhere near at hand. At this, Kwang Se spoke directly to Chang and asked him if the poem she had just read might be his. She quoted one of the lovely lines that had already won a place in her heart, and instantly, with this permission to speak to someone of higher social status, Chang turned his eyes directly to stare into the beautiful face of Kwang Se and shyly said that the poem she had quoted was indeed his.
The Castle Built By Tso Ling
With this moment, the relationship between Kwang Se and Chang would grow like a great river flowing to the sea. They were in love, and their eyes told each other so.
Since Kwang Se had spoken to Chang, he was now free to speak to her. Kwang Se asked him if he would read the poem to her so that she might hear the flow of the words in the way that he had intended them to be read, and Chang complied with great happiness. Thus began a nearly daily ritual in which the governess would accompany Kwang Se to the same spot in the gardens, and Chang would sneak away from his duties to read poetry to Kwang Se. She enjoyed the manner with which Chang conducted himself, and the sound of his voice was so enticing to her, that she found herself waiting each day for the moment when she would be able to hear Chang read to her in the garden.. Of course, her governess was always present, lest anyone think wrongly of her intentions, or those of Chang’s, as well. But, as restrictive as this near daily opportunity was, nonetheless, it became a paradise for the hearts of the two youths. Over time, Chang’s poetry readings became so much a part of Kwang Se’s life, that she began writing small poems, herself, and giving them to Chang to read, feigning the need for tutoring so that her governess would not suspect the love affair growing before her eyes, and in these poems, she was secretly telling Chang that she shared his love. Soon, the poetry readings were daily exchanges of the thoughts of their hearts, their questions to each other, and the answers that they both needed to hear. The governess eventually realized that Kwang Se and Chang were in love, and because they were both virtuous, she had no misgivings, but rather, hoped that they would someday be husband and wife. However, they all knew that such a possibility did not exist, for Chang was merely a lowly accountant, and Kwang Se was the daughter of the very powerful and prestigious Tso Ling. No, marriage between these two would be forbidden by her father, and they all knew that. Yet, still they persisted, each day Chang reading the poems of his heart to the love of his life, and the governess watching over them, watching more for the appearance of Kwang Se’s father than for anything else. The governess knew that she had allowed Chang to sit too close to Kwang Se during these poetry readings, and that Tso Ling would be enraged if he saw the liberties the governess had permitted. The days turned into weeks, and the weeks grew into months, and the love that Chang and Kwang Se developed for each other would not be denied.
The House Beneath The Willow Tree
As fate would have it, one day while Chang was reading poetry to Kwang Se, the governess fell asleep. Sadly, it was at this very moment that Tso Ling decided to visit his daughter, and when he arrived, there sat Chang at the very feet of his daughter reading to her. Tso Ling flew into a rage and ordered Chang fired from his post and banned from his lands. He also fired the governess, who returned to her small house beside the river. Tso Ling then built a fence around his great estate, the boundaries which extended down to the river and up to the hills. His daughter would be permitted to wander only within its confines, and unwanted suitors would be kept out. Kwang Se was heartbroken. To make matters worse, her father built a special house beneath a willow tree, and this house would be where Kwang Se would be kept, for it was located right beneath his window. From this position, Tso Ling knew that he would be able to keep a constant eye on his daughter. He also hired a new governess who was as ugly as she was unkind. Kwang Se just knew that she would never see her love, Chang, again, and she settled into a routine of staying within her new confines and occasionally walking down to the river’s edge. Often, she would peer into the waters there at the river’s edge, and a tear would fall as she imagined the face of her lover Chang. Her tear would gently splash, and the ripple would take away the picture she was imagining on its surface, the smiling face of the one who had read sweet words of poetry to her and had smiled so knowingly into her eyes. Time slowed for Kwang Se, and she seldom smiled anymore. Her father, seeing the sorrow in his daughter, decided it was time to erase the memory of Chang, and he arranged for suitors to come visit his daughter.
The House Tso Ling Built For His Daughter
The Suitors Come
Of course, these suitors bore no resemblance to the face she had come to love, nor did they share his gentle and kind nature. They were arrogant sons of the wealthy aristocrats who were used to getting what they wanted by decree and imperious attitudes. Kwang Se’s heart only became harder against them, and though she would meet them to please her father, she rejected all of them. Often, she would look at the great gifts they sent her, and after setting aside some of the gems and precious stones, she would send the rest back and refuse their marriage proposals. With each refusal, her father became further pained and finally enraged. He finally ordered that she would be betrothed to the great warlord, Ta Jin, a man who was much older than Kwang Se and not at all handsome or kind like Chang. Tso Ling reasoned that if his daughter would not select a suitor of wealth and high social status, he would at least marry her off to someone who would benefit his plans for his kingdom.
And so it was that Tso Ling promised his daughter’s hand in marriage to the warlord Ta Jin. Knowing of Kwang Se’s reputation for turning away unwanted suitors, Ta Jin pressed Tso Ling to set a date for the marriage. Tso Ling felt that he would need some time to bring his daughter around to the importance of this marriage, so he told Ta Jin that he would set the date for the marriage as the day that the peach tree blossomed in his gardens. Hearing this decree, Kwang Se felt as if the end had come for her. There would be no turning back now. Her father had set the date. With that, Kwang Se sadly retreated to her house under the willow tree and fell into a greater sorrow than before.
The Peach Tree Blossoms
The Wedding Is Planned
Kwang Se wrote a poem. The words were coded just the same way that she had written when Chang and she had exchanged thoughts of love in the gardens while he was still employed to her father. As then, only she and Chang would understand the meanings, lest someone discover the poems and bring great harm to both of them, and in this poem, Kwang Se asked if Chang still loved her. She then concealed it within a small boat she made of a shell with leaves for a sail. Gently placing it upon the waters of the river, she prayed to the goddess Kwan Yin, the goddess of love and mercy, and asked that she guide it to her lover, Chang. With that, Kwang Se went back to her house and cried.
Kwan Yin did indeed hear the request of Kwang Se, and the little boat found its way to Chang. He had heard the news of her betrothal to Ta Jin, and he knew that Kwang Se could not be in love with this man. Now his heart was reassured that she had never lost the love that he also kept, and upon reading the poem inside, he knew instantly that he would find a way to see Kwang Se again. He wrote a poem to her in which he told her that he had never stopped loving her, and that he would find a way to rescue her from her plight. He placed the message in the same shell with a leaf sail that Kwang Se had made, and setting it upon the gentle waters, he prayed to the goddess Kwan Yin to take his message to her. The goddess obliged. When Kwang Se found this poem, her heart felt joy for the first time since Chang had been banished. She knew now that Kwan Yin would help them come together again.
As springtime approached, the buds on the peach tree became more apparent each day, and though the sun warmed the valley and the gardens of Tso Ling’s vast estate, its warmth did nothing to calm the troubled mind of Kwang Se, for Chang had told her none of the details of how he planned to rescue her, nor had she heard any more from him, either. Kwang Se was filled with great worry and concern, but her father would not be put off. Soon the peach tree would blossom, and the wedding plans were now being made in full speed. Great people were coming and going at Tso Ling’s estate. The best fabrics were being selected for the wedding garments, wondrous amounts of foods were being planned, and flowers and performers and wines...oh, the list of activities and items seemed never ending. Kwang Se felt as if she were practicing for her funeral, and each night she waited to hear the voice of Chang calling to her to come run away with him. But it did not come, and the wedding feast arrived.
Love To The Rescue
On the night before the wedding ceremony, there was to be a great feast in the main banquet hall of Tso Ling’s estate. All of the wealthiest and most powerful people were coming, and they would be bringing a huge entourage of servants, who, of course, would be gathering in the kitchen to exchange gossip while their lords gathered in the great banquet hall. This was a rare opportunity for all of these servants to gather and catch up on important gossip, so the governess of Kwang Se was not going to miss this opportunity. It was to be the only time that she would slip away from keeping a watchful eye on Kwang Se, leaving Kwang Se completely alone in her house beneath the willow tree.
It was on this night that Chang, dressed as a wealthy merchant, came to the great feast. His disguise was so good that no one knew who he really was. Chang bade his time, and when all of the guests had become sufficiently drunk, he slipped unnoticed into the house where Kwang Se lived. Peering through the window, he saw Kwang Se idly playing with a distaff, the split stick used for spinning silk. He called out her name, and Kwang Se turned to the window in disbelief. Kwang Se at first could not believe the voice she heard. But Chang was able to control his desire to enjoy the moment of seeing her again and tell her that they had to flee immediately. There would be no time to take anything with them, since he suspected her father was making inquiries as to who this mystery merchant was, and by now, was possibly beginning to figure it all out. Time was of utmost importance. They had to flee at once.
The Bridge, Two Lovers & An Angry Father
Kwang Se knew that they would need money on which to survive, so she grabbed the bag of jewels that she had collected over time from all of the unwanted suitors and handed it to Chang. Helping her out of the window, Chang led Kwang Se away as quickly as possible. In her haste, Kwang Se had never put down the distaff, somehow thinking to herself that she might need to learn how to make her own clothes now, and so, she clung to it like some representation of her new life with Chang. With these jewels and her distaff, she knew they would make it together.
Just as Kwang Se and Chang were fleeing, Tso Ling had finally put together all of the pieces of the mystery that the unknown merchant had represented to him, and he raced out of the great banquet hall to Kwang Se’s house. The gentle breeze stirred the branches of the willow tree, but there was nothing else to be heard. Then he saw the figures running toward the river. He knew instantly what was happening and gave chase, flailing the air with a whip he was intending to use on Chang. Tso Ling made it as far as the bridge that crossed to the island where many of the local fishermen lived. But, in his drunken stupor, with whip in hand, Tso Ling gave out, unable to go any further, and he slumped against the side of the bridge watching as his daughter and her lover faded into the darkness.
The Journey Upriver
Once they arrived at the river’s edge, Kwang Se and Chang met up with the former governess of Kwang Se. She had lived there all these years, and Chang had visited her after she was fired from her position. The governess had never forgotten her love for these two, and as a gift for their new life, she gave them a small boat which she had, and in this little boat, Kwang Se and Chang made their escape. All night and into the next day, Chang rowed the small boat, going north against the gentle current, since he knew that anyone pursuing them would assume that they had gone downstream.
Chang Rowing Their Boat
The Secret Island
After many days of travel, the two lovers found an island near a fishing village. Using the money from some of her jewels, Kwang Se and Chang purchased land and built a small house. And so it was that they became husband and wife, living quite happily. Chang became a farmer, growing most of the food that they needed, and Kwang Se made fabrics for their clothes with the distaff that she had brought with her. All seemed well.
Their Island Home
Love That Lasts Forever
Ta Jin, meanwhile, never forgot the beauty of the woman who escaped his plans, and he sent spies throughout the lands trying to find her. But his spies returned repeatedly to tell him that they had found no trace of the two lovers. It was as if Mother Earth had swallowed them to protect them from his wrath. Thus, three years passed with no word on the whereabouts of Kwang Se and Chang. Then one day, a spy from the north said that he had heard reports of a woman so beautiful, that she had to be the one. Ta Jin assembled his army and marched to the place where the spy said that the two had been spotted.
Ta Jin’s army came to the island where Kwang Se and Chang had built their little house and surrounded the area. As they approached, Chang was in the field hoeing. Though he put up a valiant fight, Chang was outnumbered and no match for the warriors of Ta Jin, and he was slain on the spot. Sadly, Kwang Se saw this from her window, and upon seeing the death of her lover, Chang, she immediately closed all the windows and doors and bolted them from inside. Then, she set fire to the house, burning herself to death in the midst of the flames. The goddess Kwan Yin, upon seeing the lifeless bodies of the two lovers, felt great compassion for them, knowing that their love for each other had always been unfailing and true. To bring them back to life would only have put them back into the dangers of Ta Jin’s relentless pursuit. Thus, she decided to reward their love in another way. She touched their bodies and turned them into two turtle doves who fly forever in the skies as immortal lovers.