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Thursday Complexity PostSeptember 26 2013

A Lovers' Tale in Commerce and Culture

When the powerful mandarin discovered his accountant Chang and his beautiful daughter Koong See were in love, he secluded her in a separate apartment behind a fence. He betrothed her to a rich and elderly duke, but the young couple fled before the wedding. Versions of the story vary, but Koong See and Chang were murdered either immediately by the vengeful duke or later by his soldiers. The gods took pity on the lovers and transformed them into a pair of doves that hover forever over the willow tree that once shaded their secret meetings.

The famous tale is depicted in the elaborate Blue Willow design, one of the best known patterns for tableware. Each piece has the familiar palace, trees, the restrictive fence, distant people crossing a bridge, a boat, and two birds in the sky. The story actually has nothing to do with ancient Chinese lives or legends. It is of English origin, invented to sell dishes. It is often attributed to Thomas Minton, an English potter who engraved copper plates around 1780 with his own adaptation of earlier landscape patterns common on blue and white porcelain imported from China to England in the eighteenth century.  


The story and the popularity of the pattern spread together. The website of Stokes on Trent, a city famous for its pottery and china, explains Blue Willow has been manufactured by companies including Spode, Royal Worcester and Wedgewood, and many others for nearly 225 years. The design is available today on paper, plastic, glass, cloth, earthenware, and cookware. The story has been retold and referenced in songs, poems, children's books, a grotesque Disney cartoon, a mystery novel by John P. Marquand, and it's even been cited politically.


Pagoda at Kew Gardens built in 1762
Joseph J, Portanova, PhD, who teaches at New York University, writes that the Blue Willow design is both an imitation of and a distortion of Chinese culture. He says the fact that it was-and sometimes still is-perceived as "quintessentially Chinese" tells much about Western misperceptions of the Far East. His essay "Porcelain, The Willow Pattern, and Chinoiserie," explains that the three million or so pieces of blue and white porcelain imported into Europe in the seventeenth century fueled a fascination with China, then perceived as an exotic place and understood largely through designs on its products. Chinoiserie, he writes, wasn't about China, but a fantasy image of China that influenced art, design and culture. He cites the pagoda at Kew Gardens, as one architectural example. Portanova also cites literary allusions in which the Willow pattern is used to suggest common uninformed and sometimes derogatory views. For example, he notes that William Churchill, reviewing a history of China in 1914, mistook Blue Willow for a symbol of an unvaried and primitive civilization. Churchill wrote that the willow plate, illustrating a pleasant, simplistic tale in artistic design lacking perspective and shadow, exhibited the "whole difference between the Orient" and a more modern West.


When Chinese craftsmen began copying British Blue Willow tableware and exporting it to Europe and America, the idea that the design was Chinese became entrenched, as did the notion that the story used to market it was an ancient Chinese legend. The appeal of the story helped sell the porcelain, Portanova writes, and mass production of the porcelain increased the appeal of the "legend."


Portanova points out in his extensively researched paper that the story is more European than Chinese, and that its appeal in England and America was partly the result of its rebellious components. The young commoner dares to love the mandarin's daughter, and the young lovers defy her father and the conventions of a steadfastly patriarchal society. In reality, he suggests, no proper Chinese maiden would have felt free to ignore filial piety. Modern communication, scholarship and globalization have eroded many antiquated views of China, and faulty ideas about the story's symbolism are outdated. But the graceful Blue Willow design lives on. Blue Willow appears in several lists of the most popular tableware, and it's number three on a House Beautiful list of patterns that have "stood the test of time." Read Portanova's piece here



Remember PlexusCalls! 



Friday, September 27, 1-2 PM ET

Storytelling for Leaders, Organizations and Communities  

Guests: Thaler Pekar, Bruce Waltuck, and Barbara Ganley




Stories and narratives offer powerful ways to foster implementation of new programs, solve problems, communicate ideas, and discover new insights into the values and purposes we hold most important. Three skilled communicators who know stories and storytelling share their views and experiences. And they welcome your comments, questions and stories!


Thaler Pekar is the CEO of Thaler Pekar & Partners, and an internationally recognized pioneer in narrative and communication. Thaler's Heart, Head & Hand™ framework for persuasive communication is helping smart leaders throughout the world engage audiences and achieve goals. She is a tri-sector athlete, engaging across the private, public, and social sectors and directing smart leaders in breaking through crowded marketplaces, increasing sales and income, and heightening visibility and influence.  


Bruce Waltuck is an award-winning change leader, author, and consultant. He co-designed and led the U.S. Department of Labor's Employee Involvement and Quality Improvement system, and he created a public-private partnership model that won a Silver Medal from the Government Innovation awards program. He has developed a framework for gathering and exploring stories of organizational change. Bruce and Denise Easton are co-writing the book FLUXed: Survive and Thrive in a Worldof Disruption and Uncertainty. See


Barbara Ganley founded Community Expressions, LLC in 2008 to bring storytelling to civic engagement and community change efforts. Before that at Middlebury College she pioneered the integration of digital storytelling and blogging in the liberal arts and use of social media in service learning. Her experience with social media, community mapping, dialogue, facilitation and storytelling to engage citizens and to effect change led her to work with towns across the Northeast and the Rocky Mountain West as well as community foundations, academic institutions and nonprofits on local, national and international levels. 


Read their complete bios



Nursing Network PlexusCalls

Wednesday, October 2, 1-2 PM ET

Neighborhood Health Coach Model

Guests: Sheila Ryan, Ph.D., R.N., F.A.A.N.



The Neighborhood Health Coach Model, designed to reduce and reverse lifestyle risk behaviors, is focused on people and their health, not disease, and on action and change more than knowledge. Neighborhood-based health coaches visit, educate, and monitor individuals, families and groups to improve healthy lifestyle behaviors. Neighborhood activities and group approaches are more effective because of trusted relationships of the coaches who are chosen from their neighborhood.

Sheila Ryan is Professor, Charlotte Peck Leinemann and Distinguished Alumni Endowed Chair, and Director of International Programs at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Nursing. Expertise focuses on health reform and redesigning systems for patient centeredness, helping faculty and students expand global opportunities with internet-based education, quality improvement in health care, innovative 'health' delivery models and global health partnerships. Read her complete bio.
Audio from all PlexusCall series are available by searching the iTunes store for plexuscalls. Or, visit under Resources/Call Series. 


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