Entering the Willow Pattern

Are you one of us?
You are what you choose.
Your paradise
begins are ends
in open wounds
and self-abuse
where your heart is.
Your sacred heart
Is rotten meat;
Your little treasure,
your precious flower,
your sweet revenge.
Nothing can change
without discipline.
Give me that gun.

Nixon in China

The History of The Opium Wars

From about 1699, the British East India Company, supported by its own private army and navy, forced imperial trade upon unwilling subordinates.

The Chinese initially rejected British trade overtures, then relaxed the total prohibition on trade to one port of entry (Canton). Goods destined for the Western luxury markets, such as tea and silk, had to be paid for in silver bullion.

The British traders sought to trade instead, with cheap manufactured goods, produced in India. This trade cycle interlocked with the triangle of the slave trade across the Atlantic.

Opium (which had been used culturally in small quantities in China since antiquity) grew freely in India; and was exported by the ton, to flood the Chinese market illegally; and generate specie for trade with the Chinese. The result was rampant addiction and misery for the Chinese.

China declared a war on drugs in 1839, confiscating well over 1,000 tons of opium from dealers — mostly British — in Canton (modern Guangzhou), the cartels pressured their government back in London into demanding that Beijing repay them the full street value of their narcotics.

When the Emperor refused, a squadron of Britain’s most up-to-date warships arrived in 1840 to brush aside the Celestial Empire’s junks and blast its coastal towns into ruins. British troops slaughtered civilians up and down China’s coast. “Many most barbarous things occurred disgraceful to our men,” one officer confessed. Critics compared the opium trade to the recently banned slave trade. The London government almost fell. In China, the Opium War gradually came to be seen as the beginning of a century of humiliations at Western hands.

excerpt from Imperial Twilight Stephen Platt

Cultural Exchanges

Typical Staffordshire Willow Pattern plate

One unintended cultural consequence of this exploitation was that fine Chinese porcelain was being imported to England; the designs copied, and cheap transferware produced by the gross, in the thriving potteries of the Five Towns.

The subtle and obscure symbolism of authentic Chinese designs was transmogrified into a Western pastiche of romantic fable. In such a way was the Willow Pattern created.

The Willow pattern is commonly presented in a circular or ovate frame.

The waterside landscape represents a garden in the lower right side, in which a large two-storey pavilion stands.

Approached by steps, the lower storey has three large pillars with arched windows or openings between.

The roof and gable, shown in three-quarter perspective, is surmounted by a smaller room similarly roofed, and there are curling finials at the gables and eaves. It is surrounded by bushes and trees with varied fruit and foliage, including a large tree rising behind with clusters of oranges.

Another pavilion roof appears among the trees to the right and a smaller pavilion stands to the left projecting from the waterside bank.

A path through the garden leads to the front of the scene and is crossed by a fence of diapered panels set zig-zag fashion across the foreground.

On its left side the garden forms an irregular and indented bank into the water, from the foreground of which a large branching willow tree with four clusters of three leafy fronds leans out.

From this point a bridge, usually of three arches, crosses left to an island or bank with a house having a tall arched doorway, and a small tree behind.

There are usually three figures on the bridge going away from the garden. Above and beyond this the water (shown white) forms an open expanse, with a boat at the centre left containing two little house-like cabins, propelled by a figure with a punt-pole aforeships.

In the upper left quarter is a distant island or promontory with pavilions and trees, including a fir.

Above the scene in the centre is a pair of flying swallows, one turning and one descending, their heads and beaks turned closely towards one another in amorous conjunction.

It is the inclusion of the bridge, the garden fence, the central pair of birds, the man in the boat and the particular details of the pavilions and surrounding trees, in this arrangement, which together characterize the English Willow pattern in its standard form.

Spode Potteries Archive

The Bridge
The Garden Fence
The Birds
Man in the Boat
Buildings and trees

The Fable

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.

The reader realise immediatley that this fable has been mirrored in practically every folk culture in the world.

It also appears to me to mirror the essential narrative of Nixon in China


Projection Mapping Design

The Willow Pattern Projection

I designed a projection, to be mapped onto a plain white dinner service of simple Chinese style; flat plates and bowls, set on a table, covered with a simple red table cloth.

example of white tableware

I then assembled a set of projectable media;

Still images from the Willow Pattern stencil collection

Animated images from the Willow Pattern stencil collection

Still and Animated images representing contemporary iterations of the old Willow Pattern forms

The plan is to project these onto the dishes, plates and cups in slowly changing sequences, mapping out the story of the doomed couple, interposed with still and moving images of the Nixon meetings and banquet.

The work is to be accompanied by a soundtrack of clinking eating utensils, murmuring conversation in English and Chinese, distinct but unintelligible.

Snatches of music can be heard at intervals, and occasional polite and muted laughter.

The work ends with a sequence of the birds flitting from dish to dish before disappearing.

Reflective Practice and Learning Outcomes


Evidencing mastery of existing techniques

I felt that I had made real inroads into the domain of dynamics; by combining the dynamics of the story or narrative, the physical animation of the images, the transitions in time and form afforded by the interpolation of modern and antique and finally, the tragedy of the story of the lovers, in the Willow Pattern, with the opportunity for the politically dangerous but vital exploration of relationships afforded by Nixon in China.

Innovation of new methods

This projection was very difficult to prepare for, even in proposal form, because it inevitably engaged additional elements of design, animation, mapping, geometry and soundscape, as well as the core projection mapping practice.

Engaging Imagination

I felt that linking Nixon in China with Willow Pattern was imaginative; and echoed the intertexuality of other artists (such as Grayson Perry) who routinely mix cross cultural memes to draw the viewer’s attention to thier own circumstances.

(In consequence of the lockdown, the sketchbook of ideas has necessarily been digitalised, and is integrated in these posts on the Bob Tate website).

The Creation of New Realities

I believe that, by drawing attention to the imperialist agenda being pursued by both the Americans and the Chinese throughout the Nixon in China initiative, we hold up a mirror to the hypocracy of both sides, in pursuing a proxy war in Vietnam; and the futility of such conflicts.

As we begin to face up to the consequences of imperialism for ourselves and those whom we subjugated, it is useful to consider projection mapping as a valid mechanism for literally projecting our hopes, regrets and fears into the future.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.