Most of the Western World is familiar with Valentine’s Day. The holiday falls on February 14th and is filled with candle lit dinners, chocolates, and flowers. However in China, it falls on a different day every year and isn’t to honor Saint Valentine. Qixi Festival (七夕节), also known as Chinese Valentine’s Day or “Double Seven”, celebrates a love story in Chinese mythology dating all the way back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). The festival always falls on the 7th day of the 7th month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar, and celebrates the annual meeting of an oxherd, Niulang, and a weaver girl, Zhinu. This year, the festival falls on Monday, August 28th.
So what exactly is the story? Although there are many different versions (which vary on the region and time) each version of the story tells the tale of the undying love that the cowherd and weaver girl had for each other.
Many years ago, an oxherd named Niulang met a weaver girl named Zhinu. But Zhinu was no ordinary weaver, she was a beautiful fairy who weaved colorful clouds throughout the heaven. The two fell in love and married one another on Earth. As their love grew, so did their home and they had two children together. One day, the Jade Emperor, the King of Heaven, discovered that a fairy had married a mortal. Furious, the Jade Emperor ordered Zhinu to return to her home and leave Niulang and their children behind on Earth where they belonged.
Zhinu was forced to return to heaven, but thankfully an exiled God, who had taken the form of one of Niulang’s cows, helps Niulang to head to heaven, chasing after his beloved wife with his children. After a long journey, he nears heaven, but right before they reach it, the Queen of Heaven takes a hairpin and slashes the sky open, creating the Milky Way “river” and preventing Niulang from ever reaching Zhinu.
The two lovers, forever separated on both sides of the “river” remained in the sky in the form of the stars Altair and Vega. The King and Queen of Heaven were touched by the love of Niulang and Zhinu, so once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th month, they allow the two lovers to meet by crossing the bridge of magpies to see each other.
Since the festival dates back to the Han Dynasty, there have been many traditions associated with the festival, some of which are still observed in rural areas. Traditionally, on the eve of Qixi, women like to show off their dexterity in domestic skills by carving exotic flowers, animals, and designs on melon skins, and demonstrating how fast they can thread a needle in low lighting. Newlywed women present offerings of tea, wine, and fruit to the weaver fairy and oxherd, praying for a good marriage, to be accepted into their new family, and a happy life.
In many of China’s cities, these traditions are no longer practiced. Instead most couples celebrate Chinese Valentine’s day the same way Westerners do on February 14th; with flowers, chocolates, and gifts.