Did you know that China has its own version of Valentines Day?
It is called Qixi Festival (pronounced KEY-she), or Qiqao Festival. Sometimes it is called Double Seventh Festival, Seventh Evening, or Night of Sevens. It goes by many names because it has been observed for more than 2,000 years. Some records indicate that it might even predate Chinese recorded history!
Qixi Festival takes place on the seventh day of the seventh month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar. As it corresponds to the Western Gregorian Calendar, Qixi Festival always occurs in late summer, sometime between July 31st and August 29th.
Like all good ancient holidays, Qixi Festival ties in elements of mythology, astrology, long-held traditions, and fun modern customs.
The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl
The Qixi Festival is based on the ancient Chinese legend The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl. This story is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture, a bit like our Romeo and Juliet.
The legend is about two star-crossed lovers yearning to be with one another for all eternity. It begins with a young cowherd named Niulang who has a good heart and lives alone with his talking ox. He is an honest, humble man who lives off the land.
One day Niulang sees seven birds descend to a nearby lake and turn in to seven women who enter to the lake to bathe. These magic women, often referred to as “fairies” or “goddesses”, are the daughters of the Jade Queen, or the queen of heaven. The youngest and most beautiful of the daughters is named Zhinü and she is known as the most skilled weaver in existence.
When Niulang sees Zhinü, he immediately falls in love with her. In typical mythic style, things move rather quickly. He asks her to marry him while she is still in the lake and she agrees. The couple have two children together, a twin boy and girl. After a few years, Zhinü comes to Niulang and explains that their time together is ending and she must return to heaven. You see, one year on earth is only one day in heaven and her few “days” of absence has been noticed by her mother. Soon after, celestial guardians come and escort Zhinü back to heaven.
Niulang is obviously distraught. Niulang’s ox sees his master’s sadness and tells him a secret. If Niulang kills the ox and wears its hide, he will be able to follow Zhinü to heaven. Niulang sadly acquiesces to his ox’s noble offer of sacrifice, then he takes his children and follows Zhinü. Unfortunately, The Jade Queen notices and attempts to stop Niulang from entering heaven. She creates a celestial river to block his path. Niulang cannot cross the river and stands on the banks with his children shouting Zhinü’s name day after day.
Over time, the Jade Queen sees Niulang’s love for her daughter and is moved. She decides to allow the lovers to meet one day of the year: The seventh day of the seventh month. On this day, all of the magpies on earth fly to the heavens and build a bridge over the celestial river so the two can be reunited.
Connection to the Stars
Like most legends dating back thousands of years, the story was originally told by ancient peoples as a way to explain the movement of the stars. Niulang is symbolized by the star Altair and Zhinü is Vega.
Altair is the twelfth brightest star in the sky. It is part of a three star constellation in Chinese atrology, though in the Western world it is part of the larger constellation Aquila. The Chinese imagine the two stars closest to Altair to be Niulang and Zhinü’s children.
Vega is bright blue and is the fifth brightest star in the sky. It is part of the constellation Lyra. In the Western World we think of Lyra as a harp but in the Eastern world it is imagined as a loom, hence Zhinü’s weaving prowess.
The celestial river in the story is the Milky Way often called “The Silver River” in Chinese astrology. As the legend goes, on the seventh day of the seventh month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar, Altair and Vega move closest to each other. At the same time, the constellation Cygnus (shaped like a bird with open wings), moves to the middle of the Milky Way and its “wings” stretch to either side forming a bridge for the two spurned lovers to meet.
One can imagine ancient Chinese tribesmen looking at the stars night after night. Two of the brightest in the night sky are always on opposite sides of the Silver River. In the summer they are brought closest together and it appears as though a constellation in the shape of a bird bridges the river between them. The number seven is a symbol for togetherness in China and magpies are considered bringers of joy. The story almost tells itself.
Traditions and Symbolism
Because the observance of the Qixi Festival is so ancient, the customs associated with it have changed over time. Long ago, this holiday was a time for young women to pray to find a husband by showcasing their domestic skills. Offerings of food would be laid out for the goddess Zhinü and young women would flaunt their weaving prowess outside of their homes. In some regions of China they would even hold sewing competitions in low light. It was intended as a way for local men to see how skilled eligible women were in domestic crafts.
Today the Qixi Festival has modernized. It was once a time for young women to pray to find a spouse, but in recent times it is being celebrated more and more by couples together as a way to show their love to one another. Outdated traditions like weaving competitions and other domestic showcasing have been replaced with more common customs such as gifts, often chocolate, flowers, and other romantic gifts much like Western Valentines Day.
In very recent years the Qixi Festival has been taken on in a surprising way. Because of the growing imbalance of men to women in China, it has become more and more difficult for young men to find a mate. Funnily enough The Night of Sevens is starting to become a way for young men to find a lover by showcasing some of their industrious efforts. Starting only a few years ago, men in some regions of China started purchasing billboards to propose to women on the Double Seventh Festival. In one rural province, young men have been forming parades through town to look for their weaver girls. The men, of course, each have an ox following them. Mostly, though, couples continue to use the day as a way to celebrate love. (source).
Despite the modernization of the Qixi festival, there is concern in some sectors of the Chinese population that the holiday may soon be forgotten. The Chinese also celebrate Western Valentines Day. Now that the two holidays have become so similar in tradition, some are beginning to regard Qixi Festival as just another excuse to spend money. Western Valentines day is increasing in popularity and the Qixi Festival is on the decline.
Most Chinese agree that the story of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl will remain a part of Chinese culture forever, but the seventh day of the seventh month of the Chinese Calendar may soon become just another ordinary day. Hopefully, the more people that learn about this long-standing holiday the better chance it has of being celebrated for years to come.