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Traditional Festival Vies for Recognition

If it rains heavily on Thursday night, some elderly Chinese will say it is because Zhinu, or the Weaving Maid, is crying on the day she met her husband Niulang, or the Cowherd, on the Milky Way.

Most Chinese remember being told this romantic tragedy when they were children on Qixi, or the Seventh Night Festival, which falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, which is usually some time in early August. This year, it falls on Thursday, August 11. 

As the story goes, there once was a cowherd, Niulang, who lived with his elder brother and sister-in-law. But nasty sister-in-law disliked Niulang and abused him. The boy was eventually forced to leave home with only an old cow for company.

The cow, however, was a god that had violated imperial rules and was sent to earth in bovine form as punishment.

One day, the cow led Niulang to a lake where fairies bathed. Among them was Zhinu, the most beautiful fairy and a skilled seamstress.

The two fell in love at first sight and were soon married. They had a son and daughter.

Yet in the eyes of the Jade Emperor, the Supreme Deity of Taoism, marriage between a mortal and fairy was strictly forbidden. He sent the empress to fetch Zhinu.

Niulang grew desperate when he discovered Zhinu had been taken back to heaven. Driven by Niulang's misery, the cow told him to turn its hide into a pair of shoes after it died.

The magic shoes whisked Niulang, who carried his two children in baskets strung from a shoulder pole, off on a chase after the empress.

The pursuit enraged the empress, who took her hairpin and slashed it across the sky creating the Milky Way which separated husband from wife.

But all was not lost. Magpies, moved by their love and devotion, formed a bridge across the Milky Way to reunite the family.

Even the Jade Emperor was touched, and allowed Niulang and Zhinu to meet once a year on the seventh night of the seventh month.

This is how Qixi came to be. The festival was celebrated as early as during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).

On this night, the tradition is to look up into the sky and spot a bright star in the constellation Aquila and the star Vega, otherwise Niulang and Zhinu.

The two stars shine on opposite sides of the Milky Way.

Tradition transformed

As with all ancient traditions around the world, Niulang and Zhinu's love story is slowly losing its charm.

Many Chinese these days know more about St Valentine's Day on February 14, characterized by expensive roses, chocolates and romantic candlelight dinners, than they do about Qixi, their home-grown day for lovers.

Even Qixi is nowadays referred to as the "Chinese Valentine's Day."

Some don't even know what Qixi is.

"I really have no idea about the 'Begging for Skills Festival. I thought Qixi was just a fairytale," said Wang Yilin, 24, who works for a website in Beijing.

(China Daily August 11, 2005)

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