E. Cobham Brewer 18101897. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898.
To the right is a lordly mandarins country seat. It is two storeys high to show the rank and wealth of the possessor; in the foreground is a pavilion, in the background an orange-tree, and to the right of the pavilion a peach-tree in full bearing. The estate is enclosed by an elegant wooden fence. At one end of the bridge is the famous willow-tree, and at the other the gardeners cottage, one storey high, and so humble that the grounds are wholly uncultivated, the only green thing being a small fir-tree at the back. At the top of the pattern (left-hand side) is an island, with a cottage; the grounds are highly cultivated, and much has been reclaimed from the water. The two birds are turtle-doves. The three figures on the bridge are the mandarins daughter with a distaff nearest the cottage, the lovers with a boat in the middle, and nearest the willow-tree the mandarin with a whip.
The tradition. The mandarin had an only daughter named Li-chi, who fell in love with Chang, a young man who lived in the island home represented at the top of the pattern, and who had been her fathers secretary. The father over-heard them one day making vows of love under the orange-tree, and sternly forbade the unequal match; but the lovers contrived to elope, lay concealed for a while in the gardeners cottage, and thence made their escape in a boat to the island home of the young lover. The enraged mandarin pursued them with a whip, and would have beaten them to death had not the gods rewarded their fidelity by changing them both into turtle-doves. The picture is called the willow pattern not only because it is a tale of disastrous love, but because the elopement occurred when the willow begins to shed its leaves.