On the seventh day of the seventh lunar month lovers all over China celebrate the Qixi Festival, also known as Chinese Valentine’s Day. The holiday’s origin story dates back thousands of years to Han Dynasty mythology, a tale of forbidden romance written in the stars.
Zhinü was the granddaughter of the Jade Emperor and the most beautiful girl in the universe (represented by the star Vega). Her job was to weave the colorful clouds of heaven. Niulang the cowherd (represented by the star Altair) was an orphan who lived in a simple cottage with only an old ox to keep him company. One day the ox spoke to him, saying that he used to be the star Tarrus but was sent to earth as punishment. The ox told Niulang about a special pond near his cottage where goddesses went to bathe. After meeting Zhinü there, the two fell in love, married, and started a family.
Zhinü’s parents did not approve of the relationship and angrily summoned their daughter back to heaven. Niulang was heartbroken, but his ox sacrificed his life, explaining that if he was killed his magic hide could help Niulang fly back to Zhinü. Niulang reluctantly killed his faithful ox and used its hide to visit his beloved, but the Jade Empress slashed the sky creating the Silver River (represented by the Milky Way) to keep her daughter away from the cowherd.
Although the lovers were banished to opposite sides of the Silver River, a flock of magpies took pity on them and flew together to form a bridge, allowing Zhinü and Niulang a brief reunion. Every year on this day, when the stars Altair and Vega appear closest together in the night sky, that bridge of birds is said to bring these star-crossed lovers together—if only for one night.
Magpies are bringers of joy, and the number seven symbolizes togetherness. Traditional Qixi celebrations often include weaving or sewing, in a nod to the goddess Zhinu’s superb skills with needle and thread. Today, the Qixi Festival is often celebrated with romantic gifts or chocolates.