News and Travel editor
Romance is sure to be in the air all over China tomorrow as the Qixi festival, also known as Chinese Valentine’s day, celebrations get underway.
In the city, shops will be packed to the brim with cards, beautiful flowers, heart shaped chocolates and a range of gifts for young lovers to exchange, much like a Western Valentine’s day. Restaurants will be heaving with romantic dates and cinemas will be full of young couples enjoying each others company.
But the tragic story behind this festival is very different to the tale of love and happiness that many young Chinese adults – like people all over the world – yearn for in their lives.
Venture further into rural China and you will notice the very different and traditional festivities taking place, all with origins in the mythology surrounding the Qixi festival. Though many of the traditions are less likely to take place within larger cities, the story behind the festival is still passed between generations, and most people in China know the legend well.
The festival originates from ancient Chinese folklore which depicts the forbidden love between a cowherd and a weaver girl and her disapproving mother.
Legend has it that the young cowherd, Niulang, who was poor but kind-hearted and an orphan, lived with his elder brother and sister-in-law, who were cruel to him and threw him out of the house. He thus lived by himself as a farmer and cattle herder.
The weaver girl, named Zhinü, was a fairy from heaven, the seventh daughter of a Goddess. She fell in love with the cowherd and descended from heaven to marry him, without the knowledge of her mother. The weaver girl and the cowherd were very happy and loved each other very much. They soon bore two children.
However, when the Goddess learnt that her daughter, a fairy, had married a mere mortal, she was furious and sent celestial soldiers to force Zhinü back to heaven. Niulang, heartbroken, was surprised when one of his oxen spoke to him and told him to slaughter the ox and wear its hide to get into heaven.
Through bitter tears, Niulang killed the ox and he and his children put on its hide – hoping to get to heaven and be reunited with his wife and their mother. But the Goddess would not allow it, and on his arrival she took her hairpin and slashed a river in the sky to separate the lovers so that they could only see each other from opposite banks.
The tears of the couple attracted the pity of all of the magpies in the world, who flew to the river and created a bridge so that the lovers could be together again. The Goddess, moved by their loyalty to love, allowed for the magpies to come once a year, so that Zhinü and Niulang could spend a single night together on the seventh day of the seventh month.
There are some Qixi festival traditions which date back around 2000 years and are still practiced across rural China today…
1. Practicing dexterity
Young single women would traditionally showcase their dexterity by threading a needle by moonlight and carving exotic shapes, animals and flowers into fruit to symbolise their good skills as a potential wife.
2. Making offerings to and worshipping Zhinü
Traditionally, young Chinese women visit their local temple and pray to Zhinü, offering her fruit, flowers and beauty powder in the hope that she will help them to find their own husbands.
3. Hanging wild flowers on oxen horns
Children collect wild flowers and hang them on oxen horns in honour of the Niulang’s noble ox who sacrifices himself for the couple’s love.
4. Bidding farewell to the celestial couple (newly weds)
Newly weds traditionally, on this day, worship and say goodbye to Zhinü and Niulang, symbolising a happy marriage and acceptance of the woman into her new family.
According to some folklore, Niulang represents the star Altair and Zhinü represents the star Vega, with the river created by the Goddess representing the milky way. Traditionally, on the night of Chinese Valentine’s Day, the Chinese look to the sky for the stars Vega and Altair shining in the Milky Way, with a third star forming a bridge between the two.
Looking for a way to surprise someone you love? Why not try Beijing’s clown-flower-delivery-man!