ONCE upon a time, as all good stories go, on the seventh day of the seventh month in the Chinese lunar calendar (July 30th in North America and July 31st in China in the year 2006), the seven daughters of the Goddess of Heaven were visiting Earth and caught the eye of a Cowherd called Niu Lang.
Niu Lang’s parents had died when he was a toddler; he lived with his elder brother and his wife, cruel, mean-spirited people who treated him as a serf. She was even worse than Joe’s wife in “Great Expectations”, and that’s saying something.
Kept on a starvation diet, for which, moreover he had to work really hard, he suffered. Eventually, they – or rather she – decided he was not earning his keep, and kicked him out of the abode, with nothing but the clothes on his back and one scrawny ox.
He constructed a tiny thatched cottage on the side of a mountain, and created a vegetable garden out of the rocky soil, sharing the produce with his pet. One day, the ox talked. It insisted it used to be Taurus, the proudest star. Taurus had committed the heinous crime of stealing in the night sky. He had violated the law of the Heavenly Palace by stealing cereal grains to give to Man; and he was banished to Earth as an ox.
Like many other young ladies in many other legends, the seven sisters had gone bathing in a river. The ox had told the man that, if he took away the silk robes of the maidens, the one of them whom he would glimpse naked would be his wife.
The youngest, daintiest, kindest, most virtuous, and prettiest daughter, Zhi Nu, the Girl Weaver, (who wove rainbows and clouds to beautify the world) took the short straw, and was delegated to ask for their clothes back. Their eyes met and it was the proverbial love at first sight. And as tradition would have it, since he had glimpsed her naked, they were duty bound to wed and, because the husband was mortal, take up residence on the planet rather than in the sky. This was a marriage that was frowned upon by the gods.
Zhi Nu raised silkworms, and made sure there was enough to give her exquisite silks and satins, much sought-after throughout the land. Three years later, Zhi Nu gave birth to twins, a boy, Gold, and a girl, Jade.
After some time, however, the Goddess of Heaven decided that a broken family would not do, and was adamant that the daughter should return to her.
One day, Niu Lang came back from the field to find his children sitting on the ground, crying, because an old lady had kidnapped their mother away.
Niu Lang remembered that shortly before dying, the old ox had told him that its hide would enable a man to fly. He placed the children in wicker baskets on a yoke, put on the magic hide, and flew up to the sky. But the Queen heard the crying of her grandchildren, and the game was up.
She waved her arms and created a river between them. But eventually she had pity on the separated couple, with the upshot being that, just once a year, the couple would be reunited.
Qi Qiao Jie, the day that is The Seventh Eve or the “seventh night of the seventh moon” is when magpies make a wing-bridge for Zhi Nu to flit across and meet her husband.
The Legend of the Fairies
There is, however, another legend that purports to indicate the origins of this Chinese Valentine’s Day equivalent. This festival is also known as the Seven Sisters’ Festival or the Festival of the Double Sevens.
Niu Lang and Zhi Nu were fairies, who, as luck would have it, lived on diametrically opposite sides of the Milky Way. The Jade Emperor of Heaven, saddened at their plight decided to do something about it.
Niu Lang and Zhi Nu, so to speak, were in the seventh heaven to be together, with stars in their eyes – but they began shirking their duties. So Jade Emperor ruled that henceforth, the couple could only meet once a year – on the seventh night of the seventh moon.
Look to the Stars
It is the done thing to celebrate Qi Qiao Jie by gazing up at the star Vega (the maiden who weaves), east of the Milky Way, representing Zhi Nu, and at the star Altair (cowherd) in the constellation Aquila, on the west side of the Milky Way, the place Niu Lang waits for his lover to join him. The two stars, Alshain and Tarazed, next to the Altair, are the Cowherd’s two children.
On a more mundane level, people in love like to go to the Matchmaker Temple. Single girls look to the Waving Maid star to help them become “smart”. When Vega is in the sky, they try to place a needle horizontally on a bowl of water. If the meniscus does not break, the girl will be savvy enough to find a partner within a year. This test, however, may only be done once annually. Other customs involves decorating an ox’s horns with flowers, and tying coins with a red thread to hang around the neck of children under sixteen years of age as a protective amulet in the tradition of Chiniangma (“Seven Mothers”).
Women traditionally wash their hair on the eve of this festival, to have it clean and fresh on the day, whereas children are supposed to wash their face in the dew collected overnight, for inner and outer beauty. Young ladies throw the five-color ropes, made at Chinese Dragon Boat festival, on the roof for the magpies to use, if they need help with the bridge.
Chinese woman who are seeking to become pregnant think that this is the best time of the year to plead with Chusheng Niangniang, the Goddess of Birth, who could well be an avatar of the Weaving Maid or any of her sisters.
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