willow pattern plate stories

back to creating stories

The willow pattern plate legend is a great way to get a story writing workshop going with children or adults. As the origins of the story are not very clear, the story exists in the same space as most folklore, in which it can be freely borrowed and adapted. The ideas on this page are adapted from Traditional storytelling in the primary classroom by Teresa Grainger (Scholastic, 1997), but I have since explored the internet and have found this story being used widely in schools and by creative writers at large, in all sorts of exciting ways.

You can download free traditional Chinese instrumental music to play as a background to this workshop (or part of it). Try the one used by a British primary school who created a Youtube video of their own animated willow pattern story (downloadable from groovyshark.com):

high mountain, flowing water

small group ideas:
  • provide each participant with a willow pattern plate or side plate.
  • provide each participant with a laminated colour printout of the willow pattern
  • play the Youtube video shown above

large group ideas:
  • have laminated colour printouts to share between partners or groups
  • have a sample or two of the real plates to circulate
  • put the willow pattern onto a powerpoint or make a colour OHP transparency printout
  • play the youtube video shown above (which has only music and no words)

Provide each workshop participant with either a large white paper plate or a large piece of white card cut into a circle.
Blue paint, khoki pens or crayons are fun to work with, but optional. WARNING: test the ink/paint out on the paper plates first. Many won't work because of the waxed paper.

You can experiment with laminated paper circles or well waxed paper plates and blue whiteboard markers, so participants can edit their creations!

There are various versions, but the basic plot is as follows:

Koong Shee, a wealthy Mandarin's daughter, has been promised in marriage to a rich old duke. The wedding is to be held before the leaves fall from the willow trees. She is in love with her father's impoverished accountant and she and her lover flee the palace in a boat. They find an island where they are safe and live happily together for a time. Enraged by his promised bride's betrayal, the cruel Duke has never stopped searching for the fugitive couple. He discovers their home on the island and sets fire to it, burning the lovers to death. The gods take pity on the couple and turn them into a pair of doves.

  • tell the willow pattern story or show a video of the story (with or without words)
  • hand out the blank plates or circles of paper

From here you can take the writing workshop in a number of directions. I like to emphasise that the story has a pattern and is contained on the plate - you have to make decisions about what to include and what to exclude (in terms of characters, setting and story line or plot):
  1. Challenge the participants to create an alternative story-plate design to tell a fresh story using similar elements (you can decide how many constraints to give the participants - e.g. should it also be a love story and a tragedy, for example, ro do they have free reign?). In this exercise, the participants first draw the story's main scenes on the plate (as a brainstorm or as a mind map after the initial brainstorm).
  2. Challenge the participants to create their own original tale using the original willow pattern picture. They can start their story somewhere else on the plate, move anti-clockwise, change their interpretation of the characters and their actions, etc. They use their own plates/pieces of paper to map out the direction they take the tale in, or to expand on the main picture.
  3. Ask the participants to create a new plate pattern that tells the story of how the lovers first met, or what happens to the Duke or the doves after the original story had ended. The plate then acts as a visual planning aid as they write.

After writing their first drafts, participants are encouraged to use their plates as a visual aid to tell their stories to the rest of the group or class. In other words, they do not read their stories, they tell them. this is a good way for them to hear whether they have got something to work on before they get to polishing the story for final presentation but it can also be the end of the lesson (not all creative writing has to result in something we read and oral story telling is a wonderful way of keeping alive the folktale tradition.

If you have the resources, creating animations or simple slide shows such as the ones on Youtube is a fabulous presentation technique that can motivate learners to see the value of their creative writing in the wider world.

Try using other traditional folk art where a tale can be told using visual aids: African masks, beadwork and murals, European medival tapestries (Flemish ones), red Indian totem poles, stained-glass windows... the sky's the limit!

In a similar vein to the willow pattern tale, try looking up the patterns on toile de jouy fabric.