Today is Chinese Valentine’s Day, we are told. My first reaction to this was sceptical: another fake corporate greedfest dreamed up by vendors of chocolate and roses, another excuse to pile the guilt on busy and preoccupied partners. (“You mean you haven’t got me a present for Qixi?” “I didn’t even know it existed till I started writing about it for beijingkids.” And so on.)
However it is in origin an ancient festival dating back to the Han dynasty, and the story which lies behind it is one of China’s Four Great Folktales. It has the blend of oddity and charm characteristic of Chinese folklore.
Zhinu, whose name means Weaver Girl, was the seventh daughter of the Goddess, and lived in heaven, where it was her job to weave the clouds. However she found this a boring task, and one day she escaped from heaven and fled to earth.
While she was sitting by a river, she was discovered by a young cowherd, whose name was Niulang (which means cowherd- the Chinese are great believers in nominative determinism.) The two, of course, fell in love. They married and had two children.
Meanwhile heaven was in an uproar as everyone searched for the missing weaver girl. When her mother found her living with a mortal, she was furious, and dragged her back to heaven.
Niulang was naturally devastated at the loss of his beloved wife. Then, one night, his ox began to talk to him, and told him that if he wanted to ascend to heaven, he needed to kill the ox and put on its skin. (What the ox’s motivation was here, is not recorded.)
Niulang took his two children and set off for heaven clad in the magic oxhide. The Goddess saw him coming though, and scratched a river in the sky with her hairpin to keep the lovers apart.
And they can all be seen in the night sky to this day: Zhinu as the star Vega, Niulang and his children as Altair and two smaller stars either side of it. The river in heaven separating them is the Milky Way.
However the story has a happy ending of sorts. Once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, all the magpies in the world fly up to heaven and form a bridge so that they can meet. There, didn’t see that coming, did you?
The Qixi (Seven Sunset) festival is celebrated not only in China, but also in Japan and Korea. Traditional merrymaking includes girls competing to thread needles in low light (how the long summer evenings must have flown by…)
Now of course, it’s all about roses and chocolates and piling guilt on busy and preoccupied partners. We say, enough of this commercialism, let’s return to the true meaning of the festival. Come on, ladies! Needles out…
Photo: Shizhao, via Wikimedia Commons