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On the evening of the seventh day of the seventh month on the Chinese lunar calendar, don’t forget to look carefully at the summer sky. You’ll find the Cowherd (a bright star in the constellation Aquila, west of the Milky Way) and the Weaving Maid (the star Vega, east of the Milky Way) appear closer together than at any other time of the year. Chinese believe the stars are lovers who are permitted to meet by the queen of Heaven once a year. That day falls on the double seventh (Qixi in Chinese), which is China’s own Valentine’s Day.

Most Chinese remember being told a romantic tragedy when they were children on the double seventh. In the legend, the cowherd and the Weaving Maid will meet on a bridge of magpies across the Milky Way once a year. Chinese grannies will remind children that they would not be able to see any magpies on that evening because all the magpies have left to form a bridge in the heavens with their wings.

To Love and to Wait — A Romantic Legend

The legend holds that an orphaned cowherd was mistreated by his elder brother and sister-in-law, who eventually gave him an old ox and chased him out. The cowherd worked hard, and after only a couple of years he owned a small farm and house. He was lonely, however, with only the company of that faithful old ox.

One day the ox suddenly opened its mouth and talked, telling the cowherd that the heavenly Weaving Maid and her sisters were going to bathe in the Silver River. The Weaving Maid was said to be the youngest of the seven daughters of the Queen of Heaven. With her sisters, she worked hard to weave beautiful clouds in the sky.

The ox told the cowherd that he should go there to rob the Weaving Maid of her clothes while she was in the water. In exchange for the return of her clothes, she would become his wife. Surprised, the cowherd willingly followed the ox’s instructions and hid himself in the reeds at the riverbank, waiting for the girls to bathe. The girls did come as foretold. As they were splashing about and having fun, the cowherd rushed out of the reeds and grabbed the Weaving Maid’s clothing. In panic, the sisters dashed to their clothes, hurriedly put them on, and ran away.

The Weaving Maid, deprived of her clothes, stood on the riverbank and tried to cover herself with her hair as best as possible. The cowherd told her that he would not return her clothes unless she promised to be his wife. After a little hesitation and with a mixture of shyness and eagerness, she agreed to his request and they married.

The cowherd and the Weaving Maid lived happily together and had two children before the Queen of Heaven discovered the Weaving Maid’s absence. She was so annoyed she had the Weaving Maid brought back to heaven.

Seeing his beloved wife flying back to the sky, the cowherd was terrified and sad. He caught sight of the cowhide hanging on a wall. The magical ox had told him before dying of old age: “Keep the cowhide for emergency use.”

Putting the cowhide on, the cowherd, with his two children, went after his wife.

With the help of the cowhide, the cowherd was able to follow the Weaving Maid into heaven. He was about to reach his wife when the Queen showed up and pulled off her hairpin to draw a line between the two. The line became the Silver River in heaven, or the Milky Way.

The Weaving Maid went back to the heavenly workshop, going on weaving the clouds. But she was so sad and missed her husband across the Silver River so much that the clouds she weaved seemed sad. Finally, the Queen showed a little mercy, allowing the couple to meet once every year on the Silver River on the double seventh.

Magpies were moved by their true love and many of them gathered and formed a bridge for the couple to meet on the evening of Qixi.

It’s said that it’s hard to find a magpie on Chinese Valentine’s Day in China, because all magpies fly to make the bridge for the Weaving Maid and the cowherd. The one thing to prove that is the feathers on the head of the magpies are much lesser after the Chinese Valentine’s Day. And if it rains heavily on Qixi night, some elderly Chinese will say it is because the Weaving Maid is crying from happiness over meeting her husband on the Milky Way.

To Celebrate and to Pray —- Chinese Valentine’s Day Customs

The double seventh is the only Chinese festival devoted to love in the Lunar calendar. Actually, in ancient China, Qixi was not only a special day for lovers, but also for girls. As early as the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), girls began to celebrate Double Seven Festival in China. What was behind their celebration was their desire for the mastery of knitting, cooking, and home making, each of which was a must to be a fair lady at that time. As a result, girls would make tables, light candles, and present fruits in their courtyard in the hope of being blessed with these skills from the Weaving Maid. So the festival is also known as the “Begging for Needlecrafts Festival” or “Daughters’ Festival.” Although later the festival became associated with a love story, these activities survived.

1. Needlework

A girl will be more attractive to a suitor if she has talents of one kind or another in addition to being beautiful. In the old days of China, needlework was necessary as part of a girl’s dowry. Since the Weaving Maid is also an excellent seamstress, on the double seventh in ancient China, girls would hold weaving and needlework competitions to see who had the best hands and the brightest mind, both prerequisites for making a good wife and mother at that time. Just imagine, against the blue sky where the bright moon smiles, a pretty girl would thread the needle deftly…

2. Blossoms

The methods of keeping the skin fair and glowing by using blossoms have never been a secret to Chinese girls. On the double seventh, girls would put blossoms into a copper basin of water. The water, which would absorbe the essence of the blossoms, was said to be good to girls’ skin when they washed their face.

3. Singing

On the double seventh, girls would not forget to gather and sing a song called Qiqiao (Begging for Needlecrafts). The song expressed their sweet wishes of longevity for their parents and firm friendship for their “sisters.”

4. The Maid “Shrine”

Girls would also put up colorful “shrines” made of paper, fresh fruit, flowers, and incense as a tribute to the Weaving Maid and the cowherd. In some parts of Shandong Province (in East China), young women offered fruit and pastries to pray for a bright mind. If spiders were seen weaving webs on sacrificial objects, it was believed the Weaving Maid was giving a positive reply to the prayers.

5. Overhearing the Maid Crying

In the evening, people sat outdoors to observe the stars. Chinese grannies would say that, if you stood under a grapevine, you could probably overhear the Weaving Maid and the cowherd’s conversation. If you were lucky enough, they would go on telling you, you could hear the crying of the Weaving Maid.

6. Making Offerings

So many things — of joy and tears, praise and lament, hope and yearning — fall on the double seventh. In some areas in China, seven close girlfriends would gather to make dumplings. They put into three separate dumplings a needle, a copper coin, and a red date, which represented perfect needlework skills, good fortune, and an early marriage. But the festival celebrations were not confined to girls. It proved to be a day for all the people, young and old, men and women, to make offerings. It’s said if an offering were made for three straight years, the offering, or rather the wish, would come true.

7. Crop Forecast

People also saw the double seventh as an opportunity to tell whether it would be a good harvest year. If the milk river was clearly seen against the sky on the double seventh evening, it would be a good harvest year and people would enjoy crops at a low price.

8. Dolls and Puppets

As early as the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), dolls and puppets mocking adorable animals such as mandarin ducks appeared on the market around the festival. The pretty dolls, carrying their lucky signs of reproduction and beauty, found themselves quite popular among women.

9. Sun Books

The double seventh usually falls in the early August; in the past time of courtyard-style dwellings, the shining sunlight and cool air of August would voluntarily visit the yards of tens of thousands households. Under customs, ancient intellectuals would take their collection of books out to the open-air yard to give books a complete sunbath.

To Meet or to Watch —- the Stars, Vega and Altair

Star Vega — The Weaving Maid The Weaving Maid, star Vega in the Lyra constellation east of the Milky Way, is the 5th brightest star in the sky, bright enough for you to find on a summer night. It is 16 times bigger and 25 times brighter than the Sun and is 25 light years away from the Earth.

The cowherd, Altair, a bright star in the constellation Aquila west of the Milky Way, is the 11th brightest star in the sky. Altair is 4 times bigger and 11 times brighter than the Sun. It’s closer to us than the Weaving Maid, star Vega, but still, it takes 17 light years for its light to reach the Earth. The two stars next to the Altair in the Aquila constellation, Alshain and Tarazed, are said to be the cowherd’s two children he took with him when chasing the Maid to Heaven on the cowhide.

Will Vega meet Altair in the sky on the double seventh? Actually, it is 16 light years from Vega to Altair. Think of it, if the cowherd sends a telegraph on Altair to the Weaving Maid, it will reach her in 16 years. And if a magpie’s bridge for the Star Altair — The Cowherd Weaving Maid and the cowherd really exist, can you imagine how long the bridge would have to be?

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