Qi Xi, the Double Seventh Festival
It’s time for a beautiful folklore to be told again for anyone who is interested in learning Chinese and learning about Chinese culture, as the seventh day of the seventh month is coming. It is August 22 this year.
On this day, two lovers will meet on Queqiao (鹊桥), the Magpie Bridge, to celebrate their eternal love for each other.
The seventh day of the seven month in Chinese lunar calendar is Qi Xi (七夕), the Double Seventh Festival. There is a wonderful story of two lovers behind this festival. One is Niu Lang (牛郎), and the other is Zhi Nü (织女). The earliest known source of this story goes back to《诗经》(The Book of Songs), which is a collection of songs from 11th to 6th century BCE in China. Over the years, a few different versions of the story evolved. Yet, no matter how the story goes, the ending remains the same. Today, allow me to tell one version of the story.
Here it goes.
Long long time ago, there was a young fellow named Niu Lang (牛郎), which literally means “cowherd”. His parents died early, so he moved in with his elder brother and his sister-in-law. Unfortunately, the evil sister-in-law treated him badly, and always plotted to kill him. Luckily, there was an old cow to protect him and it thwarted all her evil attempts.
This cow was not an ordinary cow. It was originally from heaven. Niu Lang helped the cow once and, ever since, the cow was committed to help Niu Lang.
The elder brother eventually found out that his younger brother lived in constant danger. Caught between his wife and his brother, he decided to let Niu Lang go. And Niu Lang could take whatever he wanted. He chose the old cow.
After leaving his brother, Niu Lang and the cow worked on the land and lived in peace.
One evening, the cow told Niu Lang to go to the river. There he would find goddesses coming down from heaven to bath.
Niu Lang went and waited. As expected, seven beautiful young women flew down from the night sky, bathing in the river and having fun. The youngest one was the prettiest of them all. Niu Lang instantly fell in love with her.
This was Zhi Nü (织女), which literally means “weaving girl”. Her job was to weave colourful clouds in the sky.
Hoping to meet Zhi Nü, Niu Lang moved closer stealthily and put her clothes away.
After bathing in the river, it was time for these goddesses to leave. But Zhi Nü could not find her clothes, and therefore she was left behind.
At this time, Niu Lang came out from hiding and expressed his deep admiration towards her. Zhi Nü loved him at the first sight, and decided to stay with him.
Niu Lang and the cow farmed the land, and Zhi Nü weaved cloth. They had a happy life, and later had a daughter and a son.
But the love between a goddess and a mortal man was forbidden. The Emperor of Heaven found out. He was angry and asked Wang Mu Niang Niang (王母娘娘) to come down and take Zhi Nü back. Thus, this couple was forced apart.
Niu Lang was devastated. At this time, the old cow told him that it was dying and after its death, Niu Lang could use the skin to make a pair of magical shoes which could help him go to the sky to seek his wife. Then the cow died. Nothing was left but the skin.
As instructed, using the skin, Niu Lang made a pair of shoes. He put them on, taking his children with him, to heaven he went.
In the boundless and vast heaven, Niu Lang began to call out for his wife. Zhi Nü heard him and came to meet him. But right before they could get together, Wang Mu Niang Niang used her golden hairpin and drew a wide mighty river between them.
Standing on each side of the river, Niu Lang and Zhi Nü could do nothing but cry. The two children also reached their arms out towards their mother.
On seeing this, thousands of magpies flew over to form a bridge on the river to allow Niu Lang and Zhi Nü family to meet and to hold each other.
This unmovable and unshakable love softened Wang Mu Niang Niang and the Emperor of Heaven. From then on, Niu Lang and Zhi Nü were allowed to meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month on the magpie bridge. People say that, if it rains on this day, that’s Zhi Nü’s tears.
Niu Lang and Zhi Nü became two bright stars in the sky, Qian Niu Star (牵牛星) and Zhi Nü Star (织女星).
This day gradually became a festival for young women. For over two thousand of years, they had special activities and competitions on this day, demonstrating their skilful hands and praying to Zhi Nü to grant their wishes.
In English, the star Niu Lang became is called Altair, and the star Zhi Nü became is Vega. The mighty river is Yinhe (银河), literally means “the silver river”, which is the Milky Way.
This is a beautiful story. But someone may point out the dark side of it, i.e., the low status of women in the Chinese traditional society. The sister-in-law was evil. Wang Mu Niang Niang was awful. Zhi Nü was helpless and coerced into marriage. All of them were subjected to the power of men.
This is a good example that what was accepted before is no longer accepted now. Indeed, we’ve evolved. Our thinking has changed.
While recognising this story as part of our cultural roots, a new twist has been given.
Queqiao (鹊桥), the Magpie Bridge, originally a fluid place for Niu Lang and Zhi Nü to meet once a year, has been turned into a reality. It is the name for a Chinese relay satellite in support of the moon landing.
Looks like the story has a sequel if anyone cares to write it.
I’d be delighted if any readers send me their stories.