The Explainer is where we explain an aspect of Chinese life. Simple. So now you know.
Saturday, August 14 marks Qixi (七夕), the seventh day of the seventh month in the Chinese lunar calendar, when legend has it a pair of star-crossed lovers are reunited for one night only. The traditional festival, which is also observed in Japan, Korea and Vietnam is now also referred to as Chinese Valentine’s Day.
There are several versions of the myth that inspired the festival – the oldest written incarnation is from a 2,600-year-old poem – but the basic tale is of the forbidden romance between a weaver girl, Zhinü (织女), and a cowherd, Niulang (牛郎).
The beautiful seventh daughter of the Goddess of Heaven, Zhinü abandons her duties of weaving clouds and rainbows for a day to frolic on earth. Spying Zhinü – in risqué variations of the story, she is bathing in a lake – Niulang falls for the celestial maiden and proposes. Zhinü agrees, they have two children and almost live happily ever after.
Unfortunately, Zhinü’s finger-wagging mother does not consider the lowly cowherd a suitable match and conspires to break them apart. She summons Zhinü back to heaven (and her monotonous weaving tasks), leaving a distraught Niulang as a single father in the mortal realm.
Hoping to make everything better, Niulang’s magical talking ox offers to sacrifice himself so that Niulang can don its hide, thereby transporting him and their children to heaven. When the Goddess gets wind, she banishes Zhinü to the eastern star Vega and Niulang to the western star Altair, and creates the Milky Way to separate them for eternity.
But every year on the seventh night of the seventh moon, all the magpies of the world flock to the heavens and form a bridge so that the couple can spend the night together.
This article originally appeared on Thatsmags.com in August 2015. It has been updated and republished.
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[Cover image by That’s]