If it rains heavily on this Wednesday night, some elderly Chinese will say it is because Zhinu, or the Weaving Maid, is crying on the day she met her husband Niulang, or the Cowherd, on the Milky Way.
Most Chinese remember being told this romantic tragedy when they were children on Qixi, or the Seventh Night Festival, which falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. This year it fell on August 7.
Folklore Story: As the story goes, once there was a cowherd, Niulang, who lived with his elder brother and sister-in-law. But she disliked and abused him, and the boy was forced to leave home with only an old cow for company.
The cow, however, was a former god who had violated imperial rules and was sent to earth in bovine form. One day the cow led Niulang to a lake where fairies took a bath on earth. Among them was Zhinu, the most beautiful fairy and a skilled seamstress.
The two fell in love at first sight and were soon married. They had a son and daughter and their happy life was held up as an example for hundreds of years in China. Yet in the eyes of the Jade Emperor, the Supreme Deity in Taoism, marriage between a mortal and fairy was strictly forbidden. He ordered the heaven troop to catch Zhinu back.
Niulang grew desperate when he discovered Zhinu had been taken back to heaven. Driven by Niulang’s misery, the cow told him to turn its hide into a pair of shoes after it died. The magic shoes whisked Niulang, who carried his two children in baskets strung from a shoulder pole, off on a chase after the empress.
The pursuit enraged the empress, who took her hairpin and slashed it across the sky creating the Milky Way which separated husband from wife. But all was not lost as magpies, moved by their love and devotion, formed a bridge across the Milky Way to reunite the family. Even the Jade Emperor was touched, and allowed Niulang and Zhinu to meet once a year on the seventh night of the seventh month.
This is how Qixi came to be. The festival can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).
Traditionally, people would look up at the sky and find a bright star in the constellation Aquila as well as the star Vega, which are identified as Niulang and Zhinu. The two stars shine on opposite sides of the Milky Way.
Customs: In bygone days, Qixi was not only a special day for lovers, but also for girls. It is also known as the “Begging for Skills Festival” or “Daughters’ Festival.”
In this day, girls will throw a sewing needle into a bowl full of water on the night of Qixi as a test of embroidery skills. If the needle floats on top of the water instead of sinking, it proves the girl is a skilled embroiders. Single women also pray for finding a good husband in the future. And the newly married women pray to become pregnant quickly.
Tradition transformed: The love story of Niulang and Zhinu, and the Qixi Festival have been handed down for generations. Yet these ancient traditions and customs are slowly dying out. Many modern Chinese, particularly youngsters, seem to know more about St Valentine’s Day on February 14, characterized by bouquets of roses, chocolates and romantic candlelight dinners, than they do about their home-grown day for lovers.
Even Qixi is nowadays referred to as the “Chinese Valentine’s Day.” More and more young Chinese people begin to celebrate this day in a very similar way as that in western countries. Fewer people than ever will gaze at the heavens on Saturday to pick out the two stars shining bright on either side of the Milky Way, that is, if people even know on which day Qixi falls.
There are ready reminders dotted about, in the form of big ads saying “Sales on Chinese Valentine’s Day!” in shops, hotels and restaurants. But few young women will mark the festival with their boyfriends, or take part in traditional activities to pray for cleverness. Source: China Daily