Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Qixi Festival

The Cowherd and Weaver Maiden
(Image: Original source unknown)

The Qixi Festival (七夕節 Qixi Jie) is celebrated on the 7th day of the 7th Chinese lunar month. Qixi (七夕) means The Night of Sevens. It is usually translated into English as the Double Seventh Festival.

This festival is also known by other alternate names including Festival to Plead for Skills (乞巧節 Qiqiao Jie), Anniversary of the Seventh Sister (七姐誕 Qijie Dan), Daughter’s Festival (女兒節 Nu’er Jie), and Magpie Festival (喜鵲節 Xique Jie).

The origin of this festival comes from the story of the Cowherd and Weaver Maiden (牛郎織女 Niulang Zhinu) and is connected with Chinese astronomy. This story is one of the Four Great Folk Legends of China (中國四大民間傳說 Zhongguo Sida Minjian Chuanshuo) and there are many versions of it, but the basic tale is about the star-crossed love between a celestial maiden and a mortal man who tended cows. The Weaver Maiden was a daughter of the Jade Emperor (玉皇大帝 Yuwang Dadi) and his wife, the Queen Mother of the West (西王母 Xiwang Mu), and the youngest of seven sisters (hence the alternate names, Anniversary of the Seventh Sister and Daughter’s Festival). As a heavenly being, her job was to weave beautiful colored clouds in the skies with her ethereal silk. 

Multi-colored clouds
(Image: Original source unknown)

Once, on a trip to the mortal world, she fell in love and married a cowherd with whom she had two children. When the Queen Mother of the West learned that her daughter had married a lowly mortal man, she became angry and ordered that her daughter be brought back to the heavenly regions. As the Weaver Maiden was forcibly taken into custody by heavenly guards, the Cowherd used a magical oxhide to fly up to the skies with his two children to pursue his wife.

Heavenly guards take the Weaver Maiden into custody as the Cowherd gives chase
(Image: Original source unknown)

As the Cowherd nearly caught up with the Waiver Maiden, the Queen Mother of the West separated them by creating a huge river between them. They helplessly cried out for each other as they were divided to opposite sides of the great expanse.

The Cowherd and Weaver Maiden become separated by the Silver River (Milky Way)
(Image: Original source unknown)

But after time, the Queen Mother of the West became more sympathetic, and finally decided to allow them to meet once per year. So each year on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, countless magpies of the world would form a bridge over the river (hence the alternate name, Magpie Festival) so that the Cowherd, Weaver Maiden, and their two children could be reunited.

A bridge is formed by magpies over the Milky Way to reunite the star-crossed lovers
(Image: Original source unknown)

The Cowherd and Weaver Maiden are reunited for just one night
(Image: Original source unknown)

The Cowherd, Weaver Maiden, and their two children are joyfully reunited
(Image: Hillfox Art Series)

In some versions of the story, it is the Jade Emperor instead of the Queen Mother of the West that forbids their liaison.

The earliest known reference to this mythical tale is found in the Classic of Poetry (詩經 Shi Jing), also known as the Book of Songs, which is a collection of poetry dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BCE. The festival itself has been celebrated as early as the 2nd century BCE during the Han dynasty. The numerical significance of the lunar date 7/7 is based on the family position of the Weaver Girl as being the seventh daughter/sister. Because of the sincere love expressed in this tale, the festival is also informally known in modern times as Chinese Valentine’s Day (中國愛情節 Zhongguo Aiqing Jie).

If we study the night sky, the Cowherd is represented by the star Altair which is the brightest star in the constellation Aquila and the twelfth brightest star in the night sky. Its name in Chinese astronomy is Hegu Er (河鼓二) which means Second Star of the River Drum. It is also popularly called the Cowherd Star (牛郎星 Niulang Xing).

The Weaver Maiden is represented by the star Vega which is the brightest star in the constellation Lyra and the fifth brightest star in the night sky. Its name in Chinese astronomy is Zhinu Yi (織女一) which means First Star of the Weaver Maiden.

Altair (Cowherd) and Vega (Weaver Maiden)
(Image: Original source unknown, modified by Harry Leong)

Their two children are represented by the stars Alshain (Beta Aquilae) and Tarazed (Gamma Aquilae). Alshain is a star in the constellation Aquila and its name in Chinese astronomy is Hegu Yi (河鼓一) which means First Star of the River Drum. Tarazed is also located in the constellation Aquila and its Chinese astronomical name is Hegu San (河鼓三) which means Third Star of the River Drum. These two stars flank Altair, the Cowherd Star, like children standing by their father.

Alshain and Tarazed are children who stand on both sides of their father, Altair (Cowherd)
(Image: Original source unknown, modified by Harry Leong)

The river that separates the Cowherd and the Weaver Maiden is represented by the Milky Way galaxy that appears as a glowing band arching across the night sky. In Chinese astronomy, the Milky Way is called the Silver River (銀河 Yin He) or the Heavenly River (天河 Tian He).

The Silver River is represented by the Milky Way, a wide band of stars and dust clouds
(Image: Original source unknown)

In ancient China, there are many traditional activities on the day of the Qixi Festival. These activities mainly involve single young women and vary by region. The following list is by no means exhaustive, but includes many of the more well-known customs:

• Needlework competitions – Young women engage in competitions of threading needles, especially under the moon in low light conditions. The theme of weaving and needlework is based on several aspects of the festival: the Weaver Maiden’s celestial weaving skills; the festival takes place during the early autumn when women start to make warmer clothes for the coming winter; the festival celebrates romance and marriage, so single women looking for a good spouse must show off their talents in needlework which was an important domestic skill for women in pre-modern times.

• Handicrafts and paper-cutting activities – Young woman partake in creating handicrafts and paper-cutting games to show dexterity and skill because dexterous and nimble hands were an important traditional asset of women in pre-modern times.

• Fruit carving activities – Young women engage in fruit carving activities to show dexterous and skillful hands, an important traditional trait of women in pre-modern times. Fruit can be carved into the shapes of animals or flowers, or relief patterns carved into the fruit skins.

• Placing a needle in a water bowl – Girls play a game where they put a needle on the surface of a bowl of water, and if the needle does not sink due to water surface tension, the girl is said to be mature enough to find a spouse. They also observe the shadow of the needle appearing at the bottom of the bowl. If the shadow moves like floating clouds, it means that the girl is gaining skill and dexterity.

• Making prayers to the Weaver Maiden – At makeshift shrines under the evening sky, young women make offerings of incense, flowers, fruits, and feminine vanity items like combs, mirrors, and cosmetics to pray for beauty, intelligence, a good spouse, and acquiring the traditional skills of a good wife (hence the alternate name, Festival to Plead for Skills). An auspicious sign was a spider weaving its web on anything on the shrine which was taken to mean that the Weaver Maiden is responding to the prayers. 

• Keeping a spider in a box – Spiders, who are natural weavers, are caught and placed into boxes and kept overnight. The box is opened the next morning, and if the spider had weaved a cobweb inside the box, it means that the Weaver Maiden will bless the young woman with intelligence and skills. Also, the denser the cobweb, the more skill the woman will have.

• Hair Washing – Girls wash their hair with water from springs or rivers on the day of the Qixi Festival because it was believed that the water had special qualities on this day to bestow beauty and intelligence.

• Collecting dew water in basins – Girls collect dew water in a basin on the day of the festival because dew water represented the joyful tears of the reunited Cowherd and Weaver Maiden. Applying the dew water to one’s eyes and hands bestowed intelligence and skill.

• Planting seedlings using rice or beans

• Celebrating the life of oxen – Children hang flowers on oxen horns to honor the ox whose hide was used by the Cowherd to fly to heaven.

• Standing under a fruit vine – It was said that if one stood under a fruit vine on the night of the Qixi Festival, one could hear the whispering of conversation between the Cowherd and Weaver Maiden in the heavens above.  

• Stargazing under the night sky to look at the Altair and Vega stars

A girl threads a row of seven needles in a needlework competition
(Image: News.cn)

A girl threads a needle under the evening sky
(Image: Original source unknown)

Cartoon illustration of a young woman praying to the Weaver Maiden Star
(Image: Feng Yincheng/Xinhua News Agency 馮印澄/新華社發)

Evening prayer ritual to the Weaver Maiden being performed at a temple
(Image: thnet.gov.cn)

Qixi Festival games such as keeping a spider in a box, and placing a needle in a water bowl
(Image: Original source unknown)

Stargazing on the evening of the Qixi Festival
(Image: Kagaya/Hoshinavi.com)

Some, or most of these traditional activities are no longer practiced in contemporary China, but the festival is still widely celebrated by couples in a manner very similar to the Valentine’s Day of Western culture. For example, young people nowadays celebrate the festival with a romantic dinner, flowers, and chocolates.  

In Hong Kong, on the day of the festival, young women and couples visit Lovers’ Rock (姻緣石 Yinyuan Shi) on Bowen Road in Wanchai to burn incense and lay offerings at the rock to ask for romance and/or a happy marriage.

A couple prays at the Lovers’ Rock in Hong Kong
(Image: Orientaldaily.on.cc)

Traditional foods during the Qixi Festival include:

• Dexterity snacks (巧果 Qiaoguo, literally skillful fruit) - fried thin pastries made from flour, oil, sugar, and honey

Chinese chestnuts (蘋婆Pingpo Guo), also called Phoenix Eye Fruit (鳳眼果 Fengyan Guo) or Seventh Sister’s Fruit (七姐果 Qijie Guo)

• Noodles, dumplings, wontons

Fried snacks called Qiaoguo (巧果)
(Image: Babyhome.com)
Chinese Chestnuts, also known as Phoenix Eye Fruit and Seventh Sister’s Fruit
(Image: Original source unknown)

The cultural significance of the Qixi Festival is important due to several principles that are also relevant to modern times:

• The eternal love between the Cowherd and Weaver Maiden reminds us about the importance of devotion and responsibility in marriage and romantic relationships

Pleading for skills should be seen as encouragement for females to continuously learn and develop intellect and skills (not just domestic skills)

• The role and importance of women in society should be respected

A Chinese ink painting of the Cowherd and Weaver Maiden with poetic verses
(Image: Original source unknown)

The Qixi Festival is the forerunner to the Japanese Tanabata Festival (Star Festival) and the Korean Chilseok Festival that are based on a similar myth and background.

Text © 2015 Harry Leong


  1. Great website, Incredible amount of details and info, I will bookmark this and comeback for more info. thanks!!

    sincerely - Lee Ho

  2. I came upon your page while researching for an Inktober drawing this year--the prompt word was UNITED, and I thought of the Cowherd & Weaver Girl. The detail here is fantastic, and I included the names of the stars in my drawing (in Chinese)--I never saw the names of the children's stars anywhere but here, so i included those as well! Thanks so much for the information! I am including a link here to the drawing I put up of the two lovers & their children:https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10154796125306856&set=a.75677101855.87958.510756855&type=3&theater

    If the link doesn't work, you can find the piece on my art studio Facebook page, Angel Illuminations Studio. I would be thrilled to have my work on your website, as long as you could link it to my studio website if the picture is clicked www.angelilluminations.com

    Thanks again for the great research and page!