To mark Chinese Valentine’s Day Bryan Sitch, our Depty Head of Collections, and Fang Zong, Chinese Gallery Project Assistant, have teamed up to share the fascinating story behind the celebration and explain why it is also known as the Magpie Festival.
Magpies have lots of superstition attached to them and they often get something of a bad press. So, it makes a welcome change to tell a story from Chinese mythology in which this bird plays a very positive role! We are referring to the legend of the weaving girl and the cow herder.
The story goes that once upon a time, a lowly cow herder called Niulang was driven away from home by his wicked sister-in-law with only an old bull or ox to keep him company. This bull had magical powers and told Niulang of a lake where beautiful nymphs or demi-goddesses came to earth to bathe. Encouraged by his companion the bull, Niulang went to the lake where Zhinü was, and took her clothing. When her sisters fled, Zhinü stayed behind not only to recover her clothes but also because she thought Niulang was handsome and clever. This part of the story is depicted on the first (top left) postage stamp (below), issued by China Post in 2010 to illustrate the legend.
Zhinü and Niulang fell in love, married, had two children and lived a simple but happy life (top right stamp above). But Zhinü’s grandmother, the Queen of Heaven, was jealous of their relationship and also disapproved because of the difference in their status. As punishment, she placed Zhinü and Niulang in the heavens, Zhinü as the star Vega and Niulang as Altair, separated by the Milky Way, the galaxy of which our Solar System is a part (bottom left stamp, above). The two lovers could see each other but could not meet. According to the legend, the King of Heaven took pity on the lovers and allowed a flock of magpies to create a bridge between them (bottom right stamp, above), allowing them to meet on one very special day every year.
The day when the magpies created the bridge between Zhinü and Niulang was the seventh day of the seventh month in the Chinese lunar calendar – ‘the Double Seventh’ – which falls on 14 August this year. It is also known as the Qixi (‘Night of the Seventh’, 七夕) or Qiqiao (‘Begging for Cleverness’, 乞巧) Festival. There a number of variations on the name of the festival but essentially they all involved young girls asking Zhinü to give them her skills and her cleverness so that they could grow up to be skilled weavers like her. As in English, the Mandarin language has many different ways of saying the same thing and these names for the Double Seventh are all synonymous (much like we refer to the fifth of November as Bonfire Night or Fireworks Night).
‘The weaving girl and the cow herder’ is one of the most famous of China’s great folktales and is the earliest story about the constellations. Based on this legend, a pair of magpies has come to symbolize conjugal happiness and faithfulness in China. For this reason, the festival has yet another name: the Magpie Festival.
‘The weaving girl and the cow herder’ story originated from people’s observations of star constellations in the night sky. From the Han Dynasty (206-220 BCE) this interest developed into the Qixi Festival. Although now the festival is often treated in the same way as Valentine’s Day is in the west, it was originally a women’s festival, dedicated to women and a time for women to meet socially. It was customary for young Chinese girls to dress in clothes that they had embroidered themselves. They would try to find the stars representing the lovers in the night sky, so that they could show their respect to the weaving girl. They hoped to become wise, to have dexterity in sewing and to enjoy a good marriage, just like her.
In the ‘begging for skills’ or ‘praying-for-cleverness’ ceremony the girls asked the gods to make them as intelligent and talented as the young lovers so that they too could enjoy a happy marriage and have a better life. Traditionally, there were tests of skill such as threading seven needles with colourful threads and the girl who succeeded was regarded as a very talented seamstress. To the modern eye, this might seem like gender stereotyping and is one of the reasons that it is now more common for Chinese couples to exchange cards and gifts.
On May 20, 2006, the Qixi Festival was included in the first batch of the State Council of China’s list of National Intangible Cultural Heritage. The traditional customs include demonstrations of craft skills, worshiping the weaving girl, honouring the bull or ox, and making something such as a piece of embroidery. These traditional crafts are disappearing and today are more likely to be practiced in rural areas in China. Instead of observing the old customs, many people now celebrate by giving flowers, chocolates, and other presents. But the legend of ‘the weaving girl and the cow herder’ remains deeply rooted in the hearts of Chinese people and we hope it will continue to be passed down from one generation to the next.
It has proved difficult to find out how Chinese communities celebrate the Double Seventh Festival in Manchester. We would love to know if and how you intend to celebrate! Perhaps you have family photographs of how this festival was celebrated in the past? We’d love to hear from you as we develop Manchester Museum’s Lee Kai Hung Chinese Culture Gallery, opening in late 2022, which aims to build better understanding between the UK and China. Please contact us by email (email@example.com) or keep an eye on our social media channels and the hello future blog for further developments.