Last week was what the Chinese consider their equivalent of Valentine’s Day, and it is much less commercial than the Valentine’s Day we are used to in the West.
It is called Qixi – the Night of Sevens , an ancient festival where young women traditionally displayed their skills such as sewing or melon carving in the hope of attracting a husband.
It is called the Night of Sevens because it always falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month in the Chinese calendar – which was 16th August this year. Behind the festival is a charming legend which I thought you would enjoy, so I shall tell it to you.
Are you sitting comfortably? then I’ll begin:
Once upon a time there was a poor young cowherd called Niu Lang. His parents were dead and he had been thrown out by his brother and sister-in-law. He eked out a living looking after cattle, and among the cattle was an old ox which had once belonged to the King of Heaven and who had immortal powers.
One day the ox told Niu Lang that seven fairy maidens were coming down from the heavens to bathe in the nearby lake. He said that Niu Lang should go to the lake and whilst the maidens were bathing he should remove the clothing of one of them to prevent her returning to the heavens. Niu Lang did as the ox advised, and removed the clothes of the youngest maiden, Zhi Nü the Weaver girl. The others flew back up to Heaven but she was forced to remain. However, when she saw Niu Lang she saw he was handsome and a good, kind man and she agreed to marry him.
The couple lived together very happily and they prospered. They had twins, a son called Gold, and daughter called Jade.
But human years are as nothing in Heaven and when the Heavenly King heard from Zhi Nü’s sisters that she had married a mere mortal he fell into a rage and sent his soldiers to drag her back to the heavens. Niu Lang heard his children crying for their mother, so he put each child into a basket, and carrying the baskets on a bamboo pole across his shoulders he set off after the soldiers and his wife. Luckily, when the the old ox was dying it had told Niu Lang to keep the oxhide, and thanks to the hide’s magical powers , he was able to fly up towards heaven and seemed to be catching up with the group.
But at that moment, the Heavenly Queen, seeing what was happening, pulled out her golden hairpin and used it to scratch a line between Niu Lang and Zhi Nü, the line immediately became a wide, uncrossable river which we on earth call The Milky Way.
Fixed in the heavens (as the stars Altair and Vega) the loving couple were to be apart forever. After a while, growing tired of hearing the children calling for their mother, the Heavenly Queen relented and said they could be together for one night each year on the anniversary of their being parted. With that, all the magpies in the world flew up to Heaven and formed a bridge across the Milky Way so that husband and wife, mother and children could all be reunited.
Which is why you seldom see any magpies on the seventh night of the seventh month, they are all in the heavens forming the Magpie Bridge.