The Qixi Festival, known as Chinese Valentine’s Day, is a wonderful ancient tradition that celebrates everlasting love through a beautiful legend about two celestial lovers.
Love is a universal theme. No matter the country, no matter the time, love stories have captivated humanity for as long as we’ve been humans, and the sheer amount of festivities celebrating love around the world bear witness to this fact. The West celebrates it on Valentine’s Day, and many in the East have equivalent traditions—perhaps more ancient and with different dates, but whose essence remains true to humanity’s inexorable fascination with the subject.
Names and dates
One such tradition is China’s Qixi festival, a beautiful custom also known as the Double Seventh Festival, given it’s celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. It actually has many other names, including Qiqiao Festival, Night of Sevens, the Magpie Festival, the Young Girls’ Festival, and, of course, Chinese Valentine’s Day. In case you’re curious, here’s the specific date for the observance in the next few years.
Year 2019: August 7
Year 2020: August 25
Year 2021: August 14
Year 2022: August 4
Year 2023: August 22
A story for the ages
The celebration originated from a famous Chinese romantic legend, involving two lovers: Zhinü, a weaver girl, and Niulang, a cowherd. As the story goes, the love between Zhinü (representing the star Vega) and Niulang (who represents the star Altair) was forbidden, so they were exiled to opposite sides of the Silver River (symbolizing the Milky Way Galaxy). The lovers were devastated, thrown apart by fate and prejudice, but they were not without hope. Once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, a flock of magpies would gather over the river and form a bridge to reunite the lovers for a day. This bridge symbolizes the Summer Triangle, wherein Deneb unites Vega and Altair across the night sky.
The story has inspired generations of lovers around Asia, featuring many variations and details across centuries and countries. In some versions, Zhi Nu was the seventh daughter of the Emperor of Heaven. One day, she met Niu Lang, an orphaned herder, by the Silver River as she was taking a bath. The couple fell in love and secretly married, knowing the Emperor wouldn’t approve of the union. And how right they were.
When the Emperor discovered what his daughter had done, he was distraught (especially when you consider she had already had two children with the herder!) In punishment, he sent her to live on Vega and the cowherd to live on Altair, both of whom left to live in despair. The Empress, however, moved by her daughter’s plea, allowed the lovers one bit of respite. By the end of summer, when the star-bridge is visible to the naked eye, the two could meet for a day. If at any time during this period rain falls over the Chinese mountains, the locals take it as the lover’s tears.
But it’s not all sad. The festival is a celebration, after all: not of a forbidden union, but of everlasting love. Qixi is all about hope (for finding your loved one) and gratefulness (for having found them), a cheerful time to spend with your significant other. Traditionally, girls would spend the day praying to Zhinü for weaving skills, while everyone would make a love-related wish to the celestial couple. Nowadays, however, many Qixi-specific customs have been lost—some for the worse, others for the better—, and many in China celebrate the festivity similarly to how the West celebrates Valentine’s: a romantic day for romantic plans.
Regardless of traditions lost, the legend itself has survived for a long time, steadily passed from generation to generation to this day. And it’s an old tale too. At over 2,600 years old, its celebration dates all the way back to the Han dynasty, in the 3rd century BC. So yeah, it’s an ancient tradition—way older than our Western festivity of love.
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