Star-crossed lovers: the origin?

Yesterday, August 22, a Chinese friend greeted me with “Happy Valentine’s Day, Monica!” I was like, “What? It’s not even February.” My friend explained to me that tomorrow, August 23, Chinese will be celebrating their own Valentine’s Day – six months after our Western Hearts Day.

August 23 – Be my Valentine?

My friend explained to me that tomorrow is Qi Xi Festival or 七夕节for them. It is commonly known as Chinese Valentine’s Day (情人節), but literally means Night of the Sevens. It is also known as Magpie Festival, the reason of which will be explained later. Other names for the celebration include:

  • The Festival to Plead for Skills (Chinese: 乞巧节; pinyin: qǐ qiǎo jié)
  • The Seventh Sister’s Birthday, especially in Cantonese (Chinese: 七姊誕; Mandarin Pinyin: qī zǐ dàn’)

The story

A young cowherd, hence Niulang (Chinese: 牛郎; pinyin: niú láng; literally “[the] cowherd”), came across a beautiful girl–Zhinü (Chinese: 织女; pinyin: zhī nǚ; literally “[the] weavergirl”), the seventh daughter of the Goddess, who just had escaped from boring heaven to look for fun. Zhinü soon fell in love with Niulang, and they got married without the knowledge of the Goddess. Zhinü proved to be a wonderful wife, and Niulang to be a good husband. They lived happily and had two children.

But the Goddess of Heaven (or in some versions, Zhinü’s mother) found out that Zhinü, a fairy girl, had married a mere mortal. The Goddess was furious and ordered Zhinü to return to heaven. (Alternatively, the Goddess forced the fairy back to her former duty of weaving colorful clouds, a task she neglected while living on earth with a mortal.)

On Earth, Niulang was very upset that his wife had disappeared. Suddenly, his ox began to talk, telling him that if he killed it and put on its hide, he would be able to go up to Heaven to find his wife.

Crying bitterly, he killed the ox, put on the skin, and carried his two beloved children off to Heaven to find Zhinü. The Goddess discovered this and was very angry. Taking out her hairpin, the Goddess scratched a wide river in the sky to separate the two lovers forever, thus forming the Milky Way between Altair and Vega.

Zhinü must sit forever on one side of the river, sadly weaving on her loom, while Niulang watches her from afar while taking care of their two children (his flanking stars β and γ Aquilae or by their Chinese names Hè Gu 1 and Hè Gu 3).

But once a year all the magpies in the world would take pity on them and fly up into heaven to form a bridge (鹊桥, “the bridge of magpies”, Que Qiao) over the star Deneb in the Cygnus constellation so the lovers may be together for a single night, which is the seventh night of the seventh moon.

The star-crossed lovers in different cultures

Qi Xi Jie Festival inspired other countries to believe in the romantic story of Zhinü and Niulang while gazing at the summer night sky where the stars Vega and Altair were visible.

Chinese Qi Xi Jie Festival

With their own version of Valentine’s Day, the event is usually filled with the normal romantic stuff for couples. Traditionally, though, young girls show-off their domestic skills, especially melon carving.

Ladies exhibit their craftwork for Qi Xi Jie

Another is a test to showcase their embroidery skills. A girl will throw a single sewing needle in a bowl filled with water. If the needle stays afloat on top of the water and does not sink, it’s a sign that she is skilled in the art of embroidery.

Also on this day, single women make wishes for a good husband while newly married women pray to become pregnant quickly.

newlyweds performing the matrimonial custom of locking the Same Heart Lock

Japanese Tanabata

Tanabata (七夕) is a Japanese festival derived from Qi Xi (七夕), “the Night of Sevens”. It was imported to Japan during the Heian period.

The story is the same, but with different character names – Orihime the weaver and Hikoboshi the cowherd (Zhinü and Niulang respectively in Chinese).

Japanese celebrate this festival in grand scale – there are many places and prefectures in Japan which are decorated with large colorful streamers. Shopping malls, streets, and even Tokyo Disneyland join the festivities.

Women and children usually wear yukata during this star festival. A summer celebration, people go out on the streets and enjoy common matsuri (festival) outdoor stalls which sell food, provide carnival games, etc.

outdoor stalls in the festival

children in their lovely yukata

The highlight of the festival is when people write their wishes on tanzaku paper and tie them on decorated bamboo sticks. To know more about Tanabata, you may click here and see Sendai’s celebration of the Star Festival.

There’s even a Tanabata song. I think I have studied this in my Nihongo class.

Nihongo:

Sasa no ha sara-sara

Nokiba ni yureru

Ohoshi-sama kira-kira

Kingin sunago

Goshiki no tanzaku

watashi ga kaita

Ohoshi-sama kirakira

sora kara miteiru

Translation:

The bamboo leaves rustle,

shaking away in the eaves.

The stars twinkle

on the gold and silver grains of sand.

The five-colour paper strips

I have already written.

The stars twinkle,

they watch us from heaven.

Korean Chilseok

Koreans derived their story from QiXi and made their own version:

According to the well-known story, the heavenly king had a daughter called Jiknyeo (직녀성), who was very good at weaving beautiful clothes. One day, when she looked out of the window while weaving, she saw a handsome boy, a herder called Gyeonwu (견우성), just across the Milky Way. She fell in love with him. Finally the heavenly father allowed the two to get married. Afterward, Jiknyeo did not want to weave clothes, and Gyeonwu did not take good care of the cows and sheep. The heavenly king grew angry, and ordered the couple to live apart from each other, allowing them to meet only once a year. On the seventh day of the seventh month of each year, they were excited to meet each other, but they could not cross the Milky Way. However, crows and magpies worked together to form a bridge across the Milky Way for the couple. After a while, their sadness returned because they were forced to wait another year before meeting again. It is said that crows and magpies have no feathers on their heads because of the couple stepping on their heads. If it rains on that night, it is said to be the couple’s tears.

Chilseok (칠석) is a period where the heat starts to pass away and the monsoon season begins. The rain that falls during this period is called Chilseok water. As pumpkins, cucumbers, and melons start to flourish during this period, people traditionally offered fried pumpkin to the Great Dipper.

It is traditional for Koreans to eat wheat flour noodles and grilled wheat cake. Chilseok is known as the last chance to enjoy wheat based foods, since the cold winds after Chilseok ruin the good scent of wheat, making these dishes a must have for the dinner table. People also used to eat wheat pancake called milijeonbyeong (밀전병), and sirutteok, which is a steamed rice cake covered with azuki beans.

wheat-flour noodles 밀국수

grilled wheat cake 밀전병

I have Chinese, Japanese and Korean friends and I have asked them about this particular festival. For Chinese, it seems that this day is really special for them – a day for couples. As for Japanese, the Star Festival is welcomed with a cheerful celebration whereas Koreans, nowadays, treat it as a regular day.

As for me, I am fascinated by the way Chinese thought of a romantic story out of two stars in the summer night sky. It might be just a lame legend to others, but for a hopeless romantic like me, star-crossed lovers sound interesting.

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