LEGEND OF QīXì: The Story of Chinese Valentine’s Day
On August 17, 2018, we marked 七夕节Qīxì jié, alternatively known as the Double Seven Festival or the Seventh Night Festival. Qīxì jié is celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar year and finds its origins in the legend of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl.
Long ago in a distant land lived a poor cowherd (牛郎 niúláng). He was an orphan, and spent his life in solitude, save for his loyal ox, who he raised from a calf. Niúláng was lonely, but he could always confide in his ox.
One day, seeing how lonely his master was, the ox began to speak.
“Master,” he began, “I am not just a lowly ox. I am the star Taurus, banished by Heaven to live on earth. I see you are alone, and it brings me great sadness. You have treated me well, so I will help you.”
Niúláng was shocked but listened intently as Taurus spoke.
“Nearby there is a sacred pond where the goddesses bathe. The most beautiful goddess of all, Zhīnǚ, will be there today. If you hide her clothes, she will stay on earth and be your bride.”
“Zhīnǚ the Weaver? The granddaughter of the Jade Emperor?” Niúláng exclaimed. The ox nodded. Zhīnǚ’s beauty was as famous as her reputation for needlework.
Hardly daring to believe the ox, Niúláng ran to the pond. As soon as the goddesses arrived, Niúláng did as Taurus said. Accidentally, he rustled a bush.
Noticing Niúláng, the goddesses cried, “A man, a man!” and fled. Zhīnǚ searched for her clothes but could not find them. She watched helplessly from the water as the other women disappeared.
Niúláng took pity on her, and stepped to the shore, carrying Zhīnǚ’s dress. Their eyes met. Suddenly, the world faded into the background and everything stopped. Niúláng and Zhīnǚ smiled shyly and knew. They were in love.
Years later, Niúláng and Zhīnǚ had twins and had settled happily into family life. However, not all was well. One day, Taurus called Niúláng to him.
“My mortal body is dying,” the ox coughed. “When I am gone, make a cloak of my skin. It gives man the power to ascend to Heaven.”
Niúláng was grieved at Taurus’ passing, but did as his old friend instructed. The family continued in peace for a time, but it was not to last.
The Jade Emperor missed his granddaughter greatly and searched for her far and wide. Finally, he found her living with Niúláng, a mortal. His rage consumed him.
“Bring her back,” the Jade Emperor commanded the Empress of Heaven.
Upon returning home that evening, Niúláng found his children sobbing that an old lady took their mother away. Niúláng knew instantly what had happened and wasted no time. He set his children in baskets over his shoulders, uncovered the ox’s hide, and ascended to Heaven to find his true love.
The Empress looked back and saw Niúláng pursuing her. Infuriated, she pulled out her hairpin and slashed open the sky. A mighty river erupted from the gash.
“No!” Zhīnǚ screamed. She wept bitterly at the sight of her husband and children on the far river bank, unable to cross.
The Jade Emperor saw his granddaughter’s tears and was deeply moved. Though it was not proper for a goddess to live on earth, nor for a mortal to dwell in Heaven, the Jade Emperor was compassionate and commanded a flock of magpies to form a bridge once a year. On the seventh day of the seventh month, the lovers could reunite across the silvery river to share a single day of happiness.
Some say that the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl faded away from grief, leaving only their souls in the form of stars. Niúláng is the star Altair and Zhīnǚ is the star Vega, separated by the Milky Way. Meanwhile, the star Taurus shines nearby, continuing to watch over his faithful friend the cowherd.
Useful Phrases for Qīxì jié
Qīxì jié kuàilè!
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Nǐ qīxì jié dǎsuàn zuò shénme?
What are your plans for Valentine’s Day?
Nǐ yuànyì gēn wǒ gòngdù qīxì ma?
Would you like to spend Valentine’s Day with me?