In simpler times, a romantic tale emerged. The story was set in China, but actually came from an English designer named Thomas Minton. The English often romanticized far-off, exotic places in the 18th and 19th century, so it only made sense that the tale would come around at that time.
Minton designed the now-iconic blue and white porcelain in 1790 and it has stayed in vogue ever since. The traditional willow pattern always features a willow tree and a bridge. The popular story behind willow pattern pieces was based on the design itself, rather than basing the design on an already existing story.
The story goes like this (via Wikipedia):
“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 (possibly a later addition to the tale, since the birds do not appear on the earliest willow pattern plates).”
The style is so iconic that willow pattern pieces are often used in TV and film to imitate a classic 19th century setting. It’s truly a beautiful, traditional design that will doubtless stick around for a long, long time.