We may be as far away from February as we can get, but Chinese Valentine’s Day is just around the corner – it falls on August 26 this year. Better known as the Night of the Seventh Festival (Qīxī Jíe 七夕节), it falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month and celebrates one of the most romantic love stories in Chinese culture.
Folklore tells of a poor young cowherd named Niu Lang (牛郎) whose sole possession is his old cow. One day, he came across seven fairy sisters bathing in a lake. The youngest and most beautiful of them was a skilled seamstress called Zhi Nü (织女). For Niu Lang and Zhi Nü, it was love at first sight. They got married and live happily ever after – for a little while.
When the Queen of Heaven discovered that her granddaughter, Zhi Nü, had married a mortal and lived on earth, she was beside herself with fury. With an army of celestial soldiers, she descended from the heavenly kingdom and snatched Zhi Nü away. Niu Lang was desolate, but what could a poor cowherd do against the powers of heaven? To his surprise, his cow began to speak to him.
“If you kill and skin me, you can use my magical hide to fly to heaven,” his cow told him.
Stunned and without other options, Niu Lang did as he is told. He put on the magical hide and flew after the Queen and Zhi Nü. Just when he closed in on them, the Queen noticed their pursuer. With an angry wave of the hand, she sliced a wide tempestuous river in the skies to keep Niu Lang from Zhi Nü – creating the Milky Way. The two were separated forever, except for one day each year. On the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, all the magpies in the world form a bridge across the Milky Way and the two lovers reunite for a day.
Legend has it that they became the stars Altair and Vega, which shine on each side of the Milky Way. On the night of the festival, people like to gaze at the two stars and remember the story of Niu Lang and Zhi Nü.
Traditionally, Qixi Jie was also known as “Begging for Skills Festival” or “Daughters’ Festival” because girls would pray to Zhi Nü for wisdom and sewing skills to help them become good wives and mothers. But nowadays, especially in big cities, this festival is now a substitute for the western Valentine’s Day – praying for dexterity in sewing and weavingpales in comparison to roses and candle-lit dinners. The story has been passed down, but many in the younger generations don’t know much about the traditional customs of this festival.
There has been a recent push to make Qixi Jie’s previous significance more appealing to young people – and it has worked. Last year, more than 30 young women in Beijing gathered to show off their handmade qipao (traditional Chinese dresses) in the same way girls would have years ago. Young couples also celebrate in the traditional Valentine’s way, with flowers, chocolates and romantic dinners. Although this phenomenon borrows from another culture instead of strengthening traditional Chinese customs, young lovers are reshaping Qixi Jie and making it their own.
And perhaps, on their dates, they will look up at the starry sky and remember the tale of forbidden love. Dawn Lo