Known as both the Double Seventh Festival and the Seventh Night Festival, Qixi (qī xī jiē) is all about love and romance. In fact, it is the Chinese equivalent to Valentine's Day.
It takes place on the seventh night of the seventh lunar month (usually August) in China and it is a common practice on this day to recall the tale of the “Weaving Maid and the Cowherd”.
<18px>The most beautiful girl18px>
As the story goes, there was once a kind and good-hearted cowherd named Niulang. His parents died when he was little, so he lived with his brother and sister-in-law. However, his sister-in-law disliked him so much that living with her became unbearable, so he left home with only an old ox to keep him company.
Niulang built a small cottage and tried to make a life for himself. Even though he was often tired and hungry, he always found time to take care of his old ox.
One day, the ox suddenly began to speak. It said that it used to be the star Taurus, but was punished when it stole some seeds of grain to give to men. Because it had disobeyed the rule of the Heavenly Palace, it was sent to earth in the form of an ox.
Love at first sight
Near Niulang's cottage was a sacred pond where young goddesses bathed. The ox took Niulang there and told him that the most beautiful girl in the universe, Zhinu, would go there. If Niulang hid her clothes, she would stay and be his wife.
Zhinu was renowned not only for her beauty but for her skills as a weaver and seamstress as well. She was also the granddaughter of the Jade Emperor.
Niulang hid in the grasses and waited for the goddesses. When they had taken off their robes and gone into the pond, Niulang went and stole Zhinu's clothes. This scared the other goddesses who ran away and left Zhinu alone.
Niulang returned to give her clothes back. The two fell in love at first sight and were soon married.
In pursuit of the Empress
When the old ox was about to die, it told Niulang that its hide could help a man fly up to heaven. It told him to preserve its hide properly. Niulang and Zhinu lived happily for many years, and were blessed with twins, a son whom they called Brother Gold and a daughter called Sister Jade.
Their happiness was cut short, though, when the Jade Emperor found out that his granddaughter had married a mortal. He ordered the Empress to fetch Zhinu.
Niulang came home one day and saw his children crying. All they could tell him was that an old woman had come to take their mother away. He realised what had happened and immediately went to take the hide of the old ox.
Niulang put his two children in a basket which he slung over his shoulder. They then flew off in pursuit of the Empress.
The Empress became angry when she saw Niulang and his children. She slashed across the sky with her hairpin and a raging river flowed in the heavens. This created Tian He, or the Heavenly River, which separated the lovers.
Niulang and his children could only weep bitterly. Moved by their sorrow, the Jade Emperor turned them into stars and allowed them to meet once each year via a bridge made from magpies.
<18px>Surrounded by stars18px>
Today, if you look at the night sky, you can find the stars Altair and Vega. Niulang is Altair and Zhinu is Vega. The Heavenly River that keeps them apart is the Milky Way.
On the east side of the Milky Way, Altair is the middle of the three-star formation. The stars on either side of Altair are said to be his son and daughter. To the south-east is the constellation Taurus, which is in the shape of a bull. Vega, to the west of the Milky Way, is surrounded by stars that form the shape of a loom.
Every year, the two stars of Altair and Vega are closest together on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month.
The Qixi Festival has been celebrated since the Han Dynasty (BCE 206 - AD 220). Over the centuries, the way the festival is celebrated has undergone many changes.
In the earlier days, it was also known as "Begging for Skills Festival" or "Daughters' Festival". While festivals across China varied from region to region, girls were known to conduct ceremonies to ask Zhinu for wisdom, skills and to find a good husband.
In some parts of Shandong Province, they offered fruit and pastries and asked for intelligence and wisdom. If spiders were seen to weave webs on sacrificial objects, it was believed that Zhinu had looked positively on their request.
In other regions, seven friends would make dumplings together and hope to find a needle, copper coin or a red date which had been hidden in three of the dumplings. The needle signified skill in needlework; the coin meant good fortune; while the red date meant an early marriage.
Weaving and embroidery competitions were also held to see who was most skilled and creative.
The ancient customs of the Qixi Festival and the story of Chinese Valentine's Day are in danger of being forgotten. More and more young people celebrate Qixi in the same way that February 14 is being celebrated in Western countries.
Hotels, restaurants and florists capitalise on this by offering special sales on "Chinese Valentine's Day", while many single people are finding their own innovative and rather odd ways to celebrate.
Some older Chinese believe that if it rains during the Qixi Festival then Zhinu is crying as she reunites with Niulang and her family again. Perhaps she'll also be shedding tears over the customs and traditions that are slowly being lost.