Article by XIANEASE
The Qixi Festival (七夕) is coming on August 28th. Also known as “Chinese Valentine’s Day,” depending on your relationship status (and also on how Chinese your partner is), you might be expected to bring the romantic heat for it. You probably have a lot of questions, starting with “What the hell, there are two Valentine’s Days in this country?” and ending with “Okay, fine, what do I have to do?” We will attempt to answer both questions, and a few in between, with this handy little guide to Qixi.
THE COWHERD AND THE WEAVER
The Qixi Festival is a tradition dating back more than two thousand years. It comes from a legend about a cowherd (牛郎, niulang) and a weaver (織女, zhinv). China Daily’s online English edition published a fairly thorough version of this legend in 2005 that can be summed up thusly:
The Weaver, a fairy, was the youngest of the Queen of Heaven’s seven daughters. One evening, all seven of them left their heavenly palace to bathe at a river in the mortal realm. This is where the Cowherd comes into play. He, a lowly mortal orphan boy, had only one companion: the old, decrepit cow that was his ward. Luckily for him, the cow was magic. This magic cow told the Cowherd that he needed a beautiful woman in his life and, better still, had a plan to help him get her. This plan, apparently, was to steal one of the silk dresses the Queen’s daughters had left on the banks of the river while they bathed. When the Weaver finished and found that her clothes were missing, the Cowherd appeared, dress in hand, and asked her to stay. So she did.
For years they lived in marital bliss, even cranking out a couple of kids in the process. Finally, the Queen of Heaven noticed that her daughter was missing, and, like a lot of parents who don’t know where their kids are but know they ran off to do reckless things, was kind of pissed off about it and dragged the Weaver back to heaven. The Cowherd was horrified by the sight of his beloved floating off towards the heavens, but his bro-vine companion, the Magic Cow, had his back once again, telling him to keep her hide “for emergency use” before dying of old age. The Cowherd then wore the Magic Cow’s hide and was able to follow the Weaver into heaven. The Queen of Heaven was unmoved and, as the lovers were about to be reunited, dragged her hairpin through the cosmos, creating a silver river to keep them forever apart. The two lovers reunite just once every lunar year when a charm of magpies forms a bridge, allowing them to cross the Silver River.
A TALE OF TWO (OR THREE)
Qixi has not always had the colloquial distinction of “Chinese Valentine’s Day”; many sources consulted for this article are quick to note that that historically was the Lantern Festival, which comes at the end of the Chinese Spring Festival. However, China has moved away from the patriarchal traditions that gave the Lantern Festival such a distinction, and many modern Chinese tend to regard that day, like they do the rest of the Spring Festival, as a time for family.
Qixi’s prominence has been increasing in recent years, notably being added to the “National Intangible Cultural Heritage” list by the State Council of China in 2015. It’s unclear when Western Valentine’s Day was introduced to China (though educated guesses would put it at some time in the last several decades), but when asked about the difference between them, many Chinese would say that Qixi is about “love,” while February 14th is more about “buying heart-shaped crap and/or flowers,” though their traditions are fast becoming one and the same.
In bygone eras, Qixi was celebrated in a number of ways. Firstly, women would give performances of their domestic abilities, with special emphasis on their dexterousness with needlework. People would also make offerings and pray to the Weaver. Another tradition was to honor oxen with floral wreaths, in celebration of the Magic Cow, the world’s first and best quadruped wingman.
As previously mentioned, these traditions have largely fallen by the wayside and been replaced by more Valentine-ish customs, likely due to Western Valentine’s Day’s popularity in cities and an increasing conflation between the two holidays.
SO WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO?
Conventional wisdom (and all the research we did) would suggest that if you are going to celebrate Qixi, you can’t really go wrong treating it as you would the Valentine’s Day that us laowai are used to. Just don’t buy them an umbrella, because the “san” morpheme sounds quite like the “san” that is part of the Chinese word for “break-up.” Candy, flowers, a romantic dinner and other similar ideas would be a safe bet, or, if you’re really resourceful, a bridge made of magpies wouldn’t hurt either.