Today marks the Qixi (七夕, “Qīxī”) festival, considered by many to be “Chinese Valentine’s Day”. It’s a modern day tradition for Chinese couples to get married on this lucky day, the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. Qixi this year will be marked by the release of a pair of romantic comedies in China, Cities in Love and Bride Wars, while the municipal government of Fuzhou will celebrate it by having their marriage department not issue any divorces the whole day long.
Qixi Festival is a big deal until you realize “Chinese Valentine’s Day” has to compete with the other numerous Valentine’s Days that are celebrated throughout the year in China.
First is the regular Valentine’s Day that happens world-wide on February 14. Then, a month later on March 14, China joins other Asian countries like Japan and South Korea in celebrating White Day, the day upon which women have an opportunity to give presents to the men who have gifted them a month before.
And then at the end of the year is Singles’ Day on November 11, so-called due to the prevalence of ones when written out digitally (11/11). This version of Valentine’s Day is notable because it appears the purpose was co-opted from its original meaning, which was for Chinese bachelors to celebrate their bachelorhood instead of being ashamed of it. To boot, Single’s Day has since become the most important online sales day for the entire year in China.
Modern urban Chinese may consider Qixi Festival to be “Chinese Valentine’s Day”, but historically this festival has nothing to do with couples and romance, and everything to do with helping a girl become a woman.
For hundreds of years during China’s feudal era, Qixi festival was called “Girl’s Day”. It was on this day that unmarried girls celebrated their upcoming nuptials. Chinese girls of the time would congregate and compete in games that displayed the skills they would use when they became women and took on the role of mother and wife. Girls also made sacrificial offerings and performed ceremonies in the name of wisdom and beauty.
The story of the Qixi festival concerns two characters: the cowherd and the weaver girl, the latter to whom Chinese girls prayed to during the festival. These characters form a deeply, romantic story that has been told and re-told over thousands of years with several variations, although the tragic ending is always the same.
The cowherd and the weaver girl
The cowherd and the weaver girl are two star-crossed lovers destined to never be together. The Heavenly Empress was incensed that a mortal and a celestial could fall in love, so she sent the cowherd to be reincarnated on Earth while the weaver girl was forced to weave clouds in the sky.
Once, when the Heavenly Empress was in a good mood, she permitted the weaver girl to descend to Earth along with six of her sisters to play in a lake. The cowherd, who was poor and only had an oxen for company, was shocked when the cow suddenly spoke to him, saying that he should go to the lake and steal the dress of one of the sisters. The cowherd did so, and the dress he stole happened to be the one belonging to the weaver girl. Upon seeing the cowherd, the rest of the sisters abandoned the weaver girl, and flew back to the sky.
Steeled by a force greater than heaven, the cowherd told the weaver girl that he would only give back the dress if she agreed to marry him. Recognizing him as her love from before he was reincarnated, the weaver girl agreed. The two lived happily, and bore two children. However, the Heavenly Empress eventually found out, and again incensed, came to Earth and snatched away the weaver girl, forbidding her to ever love the cowherd again.
The cowherd has devastated at the loss of his wife, and was again surprised when his cow spoke to him again. It begged the cowherd to use its skin to chase after the fleeing Heavenly Empress who had taken the weaver girl. Crying, the cowherd slaughtered the oxen and used its hide. He grabbed his two children and chased after the Heavenly Empress.
So near, yet so far
The Heavenly Empress was impressed by the ability of this mortal, but was infuriated at his tenacity. Wherever the Empress ran, the cowherd would follow, the love for the weaver girl continuing to burn in him, inspiring him to continually give chase. But, it turned out the Heavenly Empress was just as stubborn as the cowherd who refused to give up. Instead of handing over the weaver girl, the Heavenly Empress took her pin and scratched the sky, forever marking the sky and trapping the cowherd from pursuing them.
The cowherd could only gaze from the other side, seeing his beloved taken away from him. He cried, just as his two children cried, and their wailing could be heard throughout the universe just as their tears dropped throughout the land. All gods and creatures pitied these star-crossed lovers, for there was no pitiful story to tell. And since even the Heavenly Empress has pity, she eventually gave in. She allowed for the cowherd and the weaver girl to meet once and only once a year.
And so, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, all the the magpies throughout the world flew together and formed a bridge that allowed the cowherd and his family to cross over and finally see the weaver girl. It’s also on that day when the stars Altair and Vega meet over the Milky Way, the same time as they do every year.
The tale of the cowherd is a sad, tragic one. The terrible longing of being separated from your beloved is just what unmarried Chinese girls would feel towards their future husband; it also describes the uncertainty that goes along with joining another family and leaving your own, which is what happens whenever a daughter marries. But this type of longing doesn’t seem compatible for a married couple who live together, or a boyfriend and girlfriend that spend all their free time together.
And yet, that’s what Qixi festival has become as “Chinese Valentine’s Day”. A romantic candlelight dinner and a dozen roses have come to symbolize the annual meeting of the cowherd and the weaver girl, but it seems couples celebrating their love on this day don’t have much else in common with the star-crossed couple.
Still, peer pressure is enormous. If one guy gives flowers to his girl on one of China’s Valentine’s Days, other people are going to expect the same, leading to repeated behavior no matter the reasoning. This may be modern times, but that heart-rendering longing that the cowherd feels for weaver girl is still with us, a void that no amount of chocolate can fill.