The familiar tale of a pair of doomed star crossed lovers associated with the scene in Thomas Minton’s Willow pattern design is not, as is often assumed an ancient Chinese legend but an English invention, devised in the 19th century to sell more china.
Promised in marriage to an important Duke, the beautiful daughter of a mandarin had fallen in love with a lowly accountant, much to the anger of her wealthy father, who built a fence around his palace to keep them apart.
The wedding was to take place the day following the fall of the first blossom from the willow tree and the Duke arrived by boat to claim his bride, carrying box of jewels as a gift. Disguised as a servant the young accountant managed to slip into the palace and escaped with both the girl and the jewels, fleeing across a bridge chased by the whip wielding Mandarin. Making their way to safety on the Duke’s boat, the pair settled on a remote island where they lived together for many years. They were eventually discovered by the bitter Duke, who sent his soldiers to put them to death. Earlier versions of the tale end on that sad note, although later willow pattern designs bear doves into which the dead lovers were changed by the pitying gods.
Two birds flying high,
A Chinese vessel, sailing by,
A bridge with three men, sometimes four,
A willow tree, hanging o'er.
A Chinese temple, there it stands,
Built upon the river sands,
An apple tree, with apples on,
A crooked fence to end my song.