The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl is a romantic Chinese folk tale. The story tells of the romance between Zhinü (織女; the weaver girl, symbolizing the star Vega) and Niulang (牛郎; the cowherd, symbolizing the star Altair). Their love was not allowed, and thus they were banished to opposite sides of the heavenly river (symbolizing the Milky Way). Once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, a flock of magpies would form a bridge to reunite the lovers for a single day. Though there are many variations of the story, the earliest-known reference to this famous myth dates back to a poem from the Classic of Poetry from over 2600 years ago.
“The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl”originated from people’s worship of natural celestial phenomena, and later developed into the Qixi Festival since the Han Dynasty. It has also been celebrated as the Tanabata festival in Japan and the Chilseok festival in Korea. In ancient times, women would make wishes to the stars of Vega and Altair in the sky during the festival, hoping to have a wise mind, dexterous hand (in embroidery and other household tasks), and a good marriage.
The story was selected as one of China’s Four Great Folktales by the “Folklore Movement” in the 1920s—the others being the Legend of the White Snake, Lady Meng Jiang, and Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai—but Idema (2012) also notes that this term neglects the variations and therefore diversity of the tales, as only a single version was taken as the true version.
As a traditional festival in China, Qixi is sometimes called Chinese Valentine’s Day circa 1990s to 2000s. In late summer, the stars Altair and Vega are high in the night sky, and the Chinese tell the following love story, of which there are many variations:
One day, there were seven fairy sisters coming from the Heaven to have fun on the earth. A young cowherd named Niulang came across seven fairy sisters bathing in a lake. Encouraged by his mischievous but loyal companion the ox, he stole their clothes and waited to see what would happen. The fairy sisters made the youngest and most beautiful sister Zhinü (weaver girl) look for their clothing. She agreed to do so. Niulang and she then began to know each other and later they started their journey of love. After a while, Zhinü decided to live in a happy mortal life rather than a boring ever-lasting life in the Heaven, so she left the Heaven secretly. She and Niulang soon got married. She proved to be a wonderful wife, and Niulang to be a good husband. They lived happily and had two children. However, when the Goddess of Heaven (or in some versions, Zhinü’s mother) found out that Zhinü, a fairy girl, had married a mere mortal, she was furious and ordered Zhinü to return to heaven. (Alternatively, the Goddess forced the fairy back to her former duty of weaving colorful clouds, a task she neglected while living on earth with a mortal.)
Niulang was very upset that his wife had disappeared. Suddenly, his ox began to talk, telling him that if he killed it and put on its hide, he would be able to go up to Heaven to find his wife. Crying bitterly, he killed the ox, put on its skin, and carried his two beloved children off to Heaven to find Zhinü. The Goddess discovered this and got very angry. Taking out her hairpin, the Goddess scratched a wide river in the sky to separate the two lovers forever, thus forming the Milky Way between Altair and Vega. Zhinü must sit forever on one side of the river, sadly weaving on her loom, while Niulang watched her from afar and takes care of their two children. Their faithful love touched the magpies a great deal and all the magpies would take pity on them and fly up to form a bridge for this couple. The Goddess had nothing to do with it but allow the couple to get together once a year which, on the seventh night of the seventh month. The bridge is called Que Qiao, “the bridge of magpies”. It is said that if it rains on the night of Qixi, it is the tears of Niulang and Zhinü crying for a lost year apart.