Qi Xi Festival (七夕節) also known as Qi Qiao Festival (乞巧節) or Double Seventh Festival has been celebrated in China as the Valentine’s Day in the western countries. As it used to be a day of great importance to girls, the event is also called Young Girls’ Festival. Not as many people celebrate this festival nowadays. The festival is about the love story of Niu Lang (牛郎) the cowherd and Zhi Nu (織女) the weaver girl. In 2021, the festival falls on 14 August (Saturday).
Originally the weaver girl is believed to be Star Vega and the cowherd, Star Altair. Their love was not allowed, thus they were banished to opposite sides of the Milky Way (銀河系). Once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, a flock of magpies forms a bridge to reunite the lovers for one day. There are many variations of the story.
One of the versions is as follows.
The weaver girl was Star Vega, the granddaughter of the Heavenly Empress. She fell in love with the cowherd which was the Star Altair. Love was not permitted in Heaven. The cowherd was exiled to the Earth and was born into a peasant family. The weaver was very sad missing cowherd. She worked hard weaving beautiful items to make her Grandmother happy. On Earth, the cowherd’s parents later died and he was badly treated by his elder brother and his wife. His elder brother just left him with an old ox and a broken cart. Cowherd struggled hard with the old ox, ploughing the poor soil and planting some crops. They led a simple living. Cowherd was a fine, honest and kind-heartedly young man.
One day, the old ox suddenly spoke to cowherd and told him to go to the pond where some fairies were taking a bath. The old ox asked cowherd to take away the red dress of the fairy and she would then marry him. Cowherd was shocked to hear this but he followed the instructions. The old ox was actually Star Taurus who was also exiled from Heaven because he spoke for Star Altair’s unfair treatment.
Cowherd went to the pond and hid himself behind some reeds. He saw the fairies bathing and took away the red dress. At noon, all the fairies flew back home. The fairy who lost his dress was the weaver girl. Cowherd came out to return the red dress to fairy and asked her to marry him. When the weaver girl saw cowherd, she recognized him immediately as the one whom she had been thinking all along. She gracefully accepted his marriage proposal and the two became husband and wife in a ceremony performed by the old ox and witnessed by the jade river.
A year later, the weaver girl gave birth to a boy and a girl. They lived very happily together. Besides taking care of her children, the weaver girl taught the village girls how to raise silkworms (which she brought from the Heaven), spin the thread and weave it into the softest and smoothest cloth. The clothes she made kept cool in summer and warm in winter. More villagers came to her begging her the weaving skills.
Later on the Heavenly Empress was furious when she found out that her granddaughter has married the cowherd. One day, cowherd rushed home from the field in tears. He told weaver girl that the old ox had died. The old ox asked cowherd to take away his oxhide before burying him as the cowhide could carry them to Heaven. With a strong wind the Heavenly troops ordered by Heavenly Empress seized the weaver girl and took her back to Heaven. Swiftly cowherd put the two children into two baskets. Covering themselves with the oxhide, they flew to the sky to chase after the weaver girl. (Another version is that the cowherd made a pair of shoes with the oxhide. Wearing the pair of shoes, he flew up the sky.) The weaver girl tried to reach out to the two children but she was already far up in the sky. The cowherd and the two children wept bitterly. The angry Heavenly Empress snatched out a hairpin and threw it in front of the cowherd with the two children. As the pin sailed through the air, the sky split with a deafening roar and a wide river gushed through a huge hole among the clouds. The devastated cowherd and the heart-broken weaver girl were separated far apart.
Day and night husband and wife stared longingly at each other with tears in their eyes. The children kept on crying. One day their cries reached the ears of the Heavenly Empress. Taking pity on them, the Heavenly Empress consented for the couple with their children to meet on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month of every year. A flock of magpies, moved by the couple’s undying love and loyalty flew over the river and formed a bridge holding each other’s tail. And so every year on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, the family celebrates their joyful reunion in the middle of the bridge of magpies.
The tale of The Weaver Girl and the Cowherd has been celebrated in the Qi xi Festival since the Han Dynasty.
The earliest-known reference to this famous myth dates back to over 2600 years ago, which was told in a poem from the Classic of Poetry (詩經).
In Heaven there is a River Han
Looking down upon us so bright.
By it sits the Weaving Lady astride her stool,
Seven times a day she rolls up her sleeves.
But though seven times she rolls up her sleeves
She never makes wrap or skirt.
Bright shines that Draught Ox,
But can’t be used for yoking to a cart.
(Translation found in The Book of Songs ed. Waley, A, 1937)
In Nineteen Old Poems (古詩十九首) dated back to the Han Dynasty there is a poem about the story of the cowherd and the weaver girl.
Far away twinkles the Herd-boy star;
Brightly shines the Lady of the Han River.
Slender, slender she plies her white fingers;
Click, click goes the shuttle of her loom.
At the end of the day she has not finished her task;
Her bitter tears fall like streaming rain.
The Han River runs shallow and clear;
Set between them, how short a space!
But the river water will not let them pass,
Gazing at each other but never able to speak.
(Translation found in The Book of Songs ed. Waley, A, 1937)
Another excellent translation
Seventh Night Song
The distant Cowherd Star
The glistening Milky Way Girl (i.e. the seamstress star)
Such delicate, delicate little hands.
Pushing the loom to clatter and chatter
But all day long she cannot complete one pattern.
And teardrops sprinkle down like rain.
The Milky Way is clear and shallow
But how wide is it across, the distance between (the lovers)?
Separated by a full stretch of water
For ages they cannot exchange a word.
(Translated by Becky Keung Yoon Bae in The Princeton Journal of East Asian Studies, Volume 1, Fall 2011)
The tale has been alluded to in many other literary works. One of the most famous one was the poem by Qin Guan (秦觀) (1049 – c1100) during the Song Dynasty.
Meeting across the Milky way
Through the varying shapes of the delicate clouds, the sad message of the shooting stars, a silent journey across the Milky Way.
One meeting of the Cowherd and Weaver amidst the golden autumn wind and jade-glistening dew, eclipses the countless meetings in the mundane world.
The feelings soft as water, the ecstatic moment unreal as a dream, how can one have the heart to go back on the bridge made of magpies?
If the two hearts are united forever, why do the two persons need to stay together—day after day, night after night?
(Translated by Qiu, Xiaolong in Treasury of Chinese love poems)
Mr Sze Chiu Leung recently wrote the poem in cursive script and published it in Facebook.
Some traditional celebrations on Qi Xi Festival
The traditional celebrations of this festival vary according to the different regions. The most prevalent celebration is that of girls praying to the Zhi Nu, the weaver girl for skills for sewing. In the evening of the festival, girls sew some articles to compete with each other and prepare some delicious cakes, fruits and cosmetics to offer to the weaver girl in order to be endowed with the masterly sewing skill and especially for a sweet love.
The celebrations were captured in paintings, for instance in Ding Guanpeng (d. after 1770) (清 丁觀鵬) Ladies on the ‘Night of Sevens’ Pleading Skills (乞巧圖卷) Dated 1748. Handscroll, ink on paper, 28.7 x 386.5 cm. Shanghai Museum.
Some people burn paper clothes and paper utensils to the cowherd and weaver girl.
In rural areas, people usually see the meeting of cowherd and the weaver girl as two stars in the sky. At the same time, the old people tell the young about this old love legend. This is not popular in cities nowadays.
From San Cai Tu Hui (三才圖會) (circa 1609), a fully illustrated encyclopedia on all kind of things, star charts related to the stars of the cowherd and weaver girl can be found.
I would like to thank Mr Sze Chiu Leung most sincerely for allowing me to put his recent Calligraphy of 鵲橋仙 (Meeting across the Milky way) in my webpage.
Further readings :
Maria Rudova, Lev Menshikov, Viacheslav Sobolev, Yurin Kirilin (1988) Chinese Popular Prints, Aurora Publishers, Leningrad
McCausland Shane, Lizhinbg Ling (2010) Telling Images of China : Narrative and Figure Paintings, 15th- 20th Century, From The Shanghai Museum. Scala. ISBN: 978-1-85759-604-5