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.¹
This is a story within a story, within a story.
When I was in fourth or fifth grade, we had a book sale at school, and I bought a few books, including Doris Gates’ Blue Willow, first published in 1940. I took it home and read it completely in a day or two. It captivated me.
First, it touched me, because it validated and amplified my parents’ stories of the Depression (a time that seemed quite far away and foreign to me) through the eyes of Janey, a girl my age. I tried to imagine myself as the child of a migrant worker, having lost my mother, longing for a home of my own…. it was all so far from my own life.
But the book fascinated me on another level as well. At the heart of the story is a blue willow patterned plate Janey inherited from her great-grandmother, through her own mother. To Janey, the design portrayed the beautiful home she longed for. For me, the story behind the plate’s design was both romantic and sad, and the foreign artwork was exotic and beautiful.
The pattern tells the tale of star-crossed lovers, the daughter of a wealthy Mandarin and a man beneath her station. They escape together across a bridge, but are eventually captured and killed, then turned into birds. Legend has it the broken-hearted father created the pattern as a lesson to other parents, that they should listen to their children.
Many years later when I traveled to China, I found that everything was foreign – the language, the written characters representing concepts rather than letters, the lifestyle, the history.
We visited a number of beautiful sites around Beijing, and one of our favorites was the Summer Palace. There, I could imagine the ivory tower life of the Mandarin’s daughter, the escape across a footbridge, the willow tree setting.
The photos I took there in my own story reminded me of the story of the blue willow china pattern, and of the place a single blue willow plate held in the story of the little girl who found her happy ending.
Suddenly, it didn’t all feel so foreign.
Click on photos to enlarge them.
This post was written in response to the Weekly Photo Challenge on WordPress.com’s Daily Post. This week’s challenge topic is Foreign. To learn more about the challenge and to see the alien images posted by other bloggers, click here.
¹Blue willow verse and plate photo plate from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willow_pattern