It is that time of year again, the time for love, in China anyway. The Qixi Festival aka Chinese Valentines day falls on the 7th day of the 7th lunar moon, this year falling on the 17th of August. It begins with the story of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl (牛郎和织女), one of the four great folk tales of China. A love story between Zhinu (织女; the weaver girl) and Niulang (牛郎; the cowherd).
There once was a younger brother who lived with his older brother and his sister in law. The older brother’s wife disliked the younger brother and forced her husband to divide up the property forcing the younger brother out. All he was left with was an old ox. He roamed aimlessly until he came across a cave and settled in. After a lot of hard work cultivating the land, he was rewarded with a rich harvest. As he was always with the Ox he was eventually named Cowherd (Niulang).
As the ox was Cowherd’s only companion he would speak to it, and eventually called him Ox brother. Cowherd would often gaze at the sky and say to the ox,
‘Ah, Ox, my only companion, the clouds in the sky are a different colour every day. Who on earth makes them so beautiful?’
Eventually one day, the Ox responded and told him that fairies fly from Heaven to the Western Hills, and that is why the clouds are different colours. He also said that around noon the fairies will bathe in the spring and that he should hide behind a tree and stealthily take the youngest fairies feather cloak, so she can not leave, and he could ask her for marriage.
The next day Cowherd made his way up the hill and found a crystal-clear lake. Like the ox said, at noon they saw big beautiful birds flying towards the horizon, and as soon as they reached the spring, their feather disguises fell off and they turned into beautiful fairies. Cowherd identified the disguise of the youngest fairy and took her cloak and hid. The fairies were startled and took their cloaks and flew away, all except for the youngest one who couldn’t fly away. Cowherd then asked for the fairy to marry him and she agreed.
From that day onwards, he worked on the farm and the fairy wove wonderful cloth. All the villagers said that Cowherd was a good person and that he was blessed for finding someone so beautiful and skilled. The villagers loved the fairy, it was like she was human, except for the fact that she never got hungry.
After some time, the Weaver Girl gave birth to a pair of twins; a girl and a boy. But happiness was short lived, one day the Ox told Cowherd that he is getting old and will die soon, but for him to keep his hide for when Cowherd is in danger. After he said this, he passed away and Cowherd was distraught.
In addition, one day the weaver girl said that she had to leave, she was being called back to the Heavens. She explained that one year on earth is equal to one day in the heavens, and that the Jade emperor will be escorting her back. As she said this, the sky opened, she grabbed her feather cloak and put it on, the heavenly soldiers then came to escort her back to the heavens.
Cowherd panicked and picked up a yoked sling with two baskets, one for his son and his daughter, as he yelled ‘You can’t go!’. He felt his whole body become lighter and then he remembered the ox’s words and threw the hide over him. Suddenly he was able to fly, so he chased after the heavenly soldiers until they reached the heavenly gates where a great river billowed up in front of them, which was the celestial river (the milky way).
Cowherd was unable to cross the river as it was too deep. He asked for help from the Ox Brother, and heard a voice, it was the ox. He said to Cowherd that he could only bring him to this point, and the celestial river separates the mortal world from the heavens, the human body is unable to float on the river would sink to the bottom.
As Cowherd heard this he kept crying out to the weaver girl, as he kept trying to cross. A bright shining star appeared next to the Celestial river, called the Altair. This is Cowherd standing with his son and daughter year after year, calling out to the weaver girl.
The Jade emperor was so moved that she allowed them to meet once a year on the night of Qixi. On that day, thousands of magpies from the human world will form a living bridge over the celestial river, where Cowherd and Weaver Girl meet on this special bridge. The night of QiXi falls on the 7th day of the 7th lunar moon.
It is said that if you listen in the quiet moonlight, you’ll hear the loving whispers of Cowherd and the weaver girl.