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A Lovers’ Tale in Commerce and Culture

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, September 26, 2013

When the powerful mandarin discovered his accountant Chang and his beautiful daughter Koong See were in love, he secluded her in a separate apartment behind a fence. He betrothed her to a rich and elderly duke, but the young couple fled before the wedding. Versions of the story vary, but Koong See and Chang were murdered either immediately by the vengeful duke or later by his soldiers. The gods took pity on the lovers and transformed them into a pair of doves that hover forever over the willow tree that once shaded their secret meetings.

The famous tale is depicted in the elaborate Blue Willow design, one of the best known patterns for tableware. Each piece has the familiar palace, trees, the restrictive fence, distant people crossing a bridge, a boat, and two birds in the sky. The story actually has nothing to do with ancient Chinese lives or legends. It is of English origin, invented to sell dishes. It is often attributed to Thomas Minton, an English potter who engraved copper plates around 1780 with his own adaptation of earlier landscape patterns common on blue and white porcelain imported from China to England in the eighteenth century.

The story and the popularity of the pattern spread together. The website of Stokes on Trent, a city famous for its pottery and china, explains Blue Willow has been manufactured by companies including Spode, Royal Worcester and Wedgewood, and many others for nearly 225 years. The design is available today on paper, plastic, glass, cloth, earthenware, and cookware. The story has been retold and referenced in songs, poems, children's books, a grotesque Disney cartoon, a mystery novel by John P. Marquand, and it’s even been cited politically.

Joseph J, Portanova, PhD, who teaches at New York University, writes that the Blue Willow design is both an imitation of and a distortion of Chinese culture. He says the fact that it was-and sometimes still is-perceived as "quintessentially Chinese" tells much about Western misperceptions of the Far East. His essay "Porcelain, The Willow Pattern, and Chinoiserie," explains that the three million or so pieces of blue and white porcelain imported into Europe in the seventeenth century fueled a fascination with China, then perceived as an exotic place and understood largely through designs on its products. Chinoiserie, he writes, wasn’t about China, but a fantasy image of China that influenced art, design and culture. He cites the pagoda at Kew Gardens, as one architectural example. Portanova also cites literary allusions in which the Willow pattern is used to suggest commonly held uninformed and sometimes derogatory views. For example, he notes that William Churchill, reviewing a history of China in 1914, mistook Blue Willow for a symbol of an unvaried and primitive civilization. Churchill wrote that the willow plate, illustrating a pleasant, simplistic tale in artistic design lacking perspective and shadow, exhibited the "whole difference between the Orient" and a more modern West.


When Chinese craftsmen began copying British Blue Willow tableware and exporting it to Europe and America, the idea that the design was Chinese became entrenched, as did the notion that the story used to market it was an ancient Chinese legend. The appeal of the story helped sell the porcelain, Portanova writes, and mass production of the porcelain increased the appeal of the "legend."

Portanova points out in his extensively researched paper that the story is more European than Chinese, and that its appeal in England and America is partly the result of its rebellious components. The young commoner dares to love the mandarin’s daughter, and the young lovers defy her father and the conventions of a steadfastly patriarchal society. In reality, he suggests, no proper Chinese maiden would have felt free to ignore filial piety. Modern communication, scholarship and globalization have eroded many antiquated views of China, and faulty ideas about the story’s symbolism are outdated. But the graceful Blue Willow design lives on. Blue Willow appears in several lists of the most popular tableware, and it’s number three on a House Beautiful list of patterns that have "stood the test of time." Read Portanova’s piece here

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture 

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