Home China Insights The Story and Lessons Behind the Chinese Version of Valentine’s Day

The Story and Lessons Behind the Chinese Version of Valentine’s Day

Qi Xi (七夕), also known as Double Seventh, is a traditional Chinese festival that comes from the ancient legend of a literally star-crossed love between a mortal and a divine being: Niu Lang and Zhi Nü (牛郎織女), or the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl.

“Niu Lang and Zhi Nü” is the story of an honest and hardworking cowherd who chances upon a beautiful young maiden, the Weaver Girl. She is none other than the youngest daughter of the Emperor and Empress of Heaven. While stopping by in the mortal world, she falls in love with the Cowherd and the two are married.

The love between a mortal and a divinity is doomed to a bitter fate

Once the celestial court discovers the forbidden union, the Empress of Heaven sends celestial soldiers to escort the Weaver Girl back to her rightful home. Donning the magical hide of his loyal cow, the Cowherd gives chase, but at the decisive moment, the Empress pulls a jade pin from her hair and draws a line straight between them, forming a silver river — the Milky Way — across the firmament. The lovers are sorrowfully separated.

But the Emperor of Heaven has pity on his daughter. Once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, a vast flock of heavenly magpies soars across the Milky Way, forming a bridge for the Cowherd and Weaver Girl to be together again.

To mortals below, the sky on this night is emblazoned with the stars of the Milky Way reaching from north to south. Two particularly bright stars on each side stand out. They are the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, known to astronomy as Altair and Vega.

The story of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl illustrates deeply held traditional values from Chinese culture. Here we have the loyalty and devotion of a woman who has entrusted her life to the man she loves, and his fulfillment of the responsibility he owes her. No hardship can break this.

Divine standards are higher than those found in the human world, and the love shown by gods is difficult for mankind to fathom.

At the same time, the rules of Heaven are inviolable. Divine standards are higher than those found in the human world, and the love shown by gods is difficult for mankind to fathom. In allowing the Cowherd and Weaver Girl their reunion on Qi Xi, the Emperor of Heaven showed all humanity that the essence of true love is compassion, rather than fleeting sentiment.

Because of the differences between the Chinese and Western calendars, Qi Xi appears to fall on a different day from year to year. In 2018, it is celebrated on Friday, Aug. 17. Qi Xi traditionally served as a Chinese equivalent to Valentine’s Day, with an assortment of customs with long-reaching histories.

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Leo Timm
Leo Timm is a writer and translator focusing on China's traditional culture, international relations, and its national polity. Follow him on Twitter at @nationalpolity.

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