Today is the 7th day of the 7th month of the lunar year. Unlike most Chinese people, who always know what date it is on the lunar calander as well as the Solar, I’d forgotten it was 7/7. After commenting on a beautiful dress a colleague was wearing, I was reminded that it was 7/7, or 情人节Qing Ren Jie or “Lover’s Day”, sometimes referred to as Chinese Valentine’s Day. Actually, the date has a very old heritage and other, older names: Qi Xi Jie, or Qi Qiao Jie.
The poignant story behind this day concerns a heavenly maiden, 织女，Zhi Nu, the Weaving Girl who comes from the star Vega, and her beloved, an earthly boy who is a cowherd. 牛郎 Niu Lang, the Cowherd. Learning of their marriage, the girl’s mother, the Queen of Heaven, is outraged, and orders her 7th daughter to return to heaven, where she is supposed to be weaving colourful clouds.
One of the Cowherd’s oxen is really an Immortal exiled from Heaven, and he tells the boy where to find his beloved. Once he has ascended to heaven he becomes the star Altair, but the Queen discovers him and is angry once more. Taking off her hairpin, she causes a rift in Heaven which becomes the 银河Yin He, or the Silver River, which to others is known as the Milky Way.
The Cowherd lives on one side of the Silver River with their two children, nearby stars, and is able to see the Weaving Maiden once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th month.
The older names, 七夕節 and 乞巧節 – Qi Xi Jie and Qi Qiao Jie – are semantically linked to the meaning of the festival – “Seven dusk” and “seven opportunity” – ie the opportunity ( for the lovers annual reunion) at dusk on the 7th of the 7th.
Many astronomical myths are connected to the procession of the equinoxes and the changing of the pole star. Andrew Collins details myths in many diverse cultures which codify the changing of the pole star, when Vega in Cygnus took over from another star as the marker of the northern celestial pole. Researchers have placed Chinese astronomical maps to between 11,000 – 15,000 years old – about the time when Vega became Pole Star.
In the myth, a Magpie Bridge is formed when all the magpies ( known as Happy Birds in Chinese and symbolising good fortune) from earth fly up to heaven and make a bridge. The bridge is formed by the stars of Cygnus, which form a heavenly triangle at this time of year and signify the end of summer.
The story of the lovers was first recorded some 8 millenia back, in the 6th Century BC. How is it celebrated today? Apart from modernising the name to “lover’s day” and adding a western comparison ‘valentines’ day….two of my ( unmarried, female) colleagues, wore particularly beautiful dresses. Where they hoping to attract their Oxboy to cross the heavenly river to find them?
Many Chinese netizens took to Wechat, a popular communication app, with a brief summary of the story and a comment to “send me 5 Yuan ( on Wechat money, an online monetary payment system) if you like the story!
From the 6th Century BC to the 21st century AD – that’s some 8,000 years odd – Chinese people have been talking about the Stars Vega and Altair and their annual connection via the Magpie Bridge, the stars of Cygnus.
Since it’s raining tonight, Weaver Girl is crying. Only on fine nights can the lovers reunite.It’s her tears plummeting down outside my window.
Photo credit: all photos from http://jadeturtlerecords.blogspot.com.au/2015/08/the-qixi-festival.html apart from the last one, from my mobile phone!