Valentine's Day in China, the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, falls on August 15 this year.
That is, on Thursday evening, Niu Lang and Zhi Nu will meet on a bridge of magpies across the Milky Way. Chinese grannies will remind children that they would not be able to see any magpies on that evening because all the magpies have left to form a bridge in the heavens with their wings.
The legend has been handed down for nearly 2 millennia. The story has been recorded as far back as the Jin Dynasty (256-420 AD). Poets composed hundreds of verses on the love story and many types of Chinese opera tell the story.
The Chinese people believe that the star Vega, east of the Milky Way, is Zhi Nu and, at the constellation of Aquila, on the western side of the Milky Way, Niu Lang waits for his wife.
Zhi Nu was said to be the youngest of seven daughters of the Queen of Heaven. With her sisters, she worked hard to weave beautiful clouds in the sky, while Niu Lang was a poor orphan cowherd, driven out of his home by his elder brother and his cruel wife.
Niu Lang lamented over his lonely and poor life with an old cow, his only friend and companion. The magical cow kindly told him of a way to find a beautiful and nice woman as his life companion.
Under the direction of the cow, Niu Lang went to the riverside on an evening, where the seven fairies slipped out of their heavenly palace to bathe.
He took one of the beautiful silk dresses the fairies had left on the bank. When the fairies left the water, the youngest couldn't find her clothes and had to see her sisters fly back to heaven without her.
Then Niu Lang came out with the dress and asked the youngest fairy, Zhi Nu, to stay with him.
Several years passed on Earth, which were only a few days in heaven. Niu Lang and Zhi Nu lived happily together and had two children before the Queen of Heaven discovered Zhi Nu's absence.
She was so annoyed she had Zhi Nu brought back to heaven. Seeing his beloved wife flying in the sky, Niu Lang was terrified. He caught sight of the cowhide hanging on a wall. The magical cow had told him before dying of old age: "Keep the cowhide for emergency use."
Putting the cowhide on, he went after his wife with his two children.
With the help of the cowhide, Niu Lang was able to follow Zhi Nu into heaven. He was about to reach his wife when the Queen showed up and pulled off her hairpin to draw a line between the two. The line became the Silver River in heaven, or the Milky Way.
Zhi Nu went back to the heavenly workshop, going on weaving the clouds. But she was so sad, and missed her husband across the Silver River so much that the clouds she weaved seemed sad.
Finally, the Queen showed a little mercy, allowing the couple to meet once every year on the Silver River.
One of the most famous poems about the legend was written by Qin Guan of in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
Fairy Of The Magpie Bridge
Among the beautiful clouds,
Over the heavenly river,
Crosses the weaving maiden.
A night of rendezvous,
Across the autumn sky,
Surpasses joy on earth.
Moments of tender love and dream,
So sad to leave the magpie bridge.
Eternal love between us two,
Shall withstand the time apart. (Translated by Kylie Hsu)
Compared with love stories in Western legends, such as Tristan and Iseult, the story of Niu Lang and Zhi Nu seems not as intense or passionate. Love doesn't kill or break up the barrier between them. They just wait patiently on the riverbank, believing that their love can withstand their time apart.
It is faith and emotional liaison instead of physical attraction and desire that is emphasized in the story as well as in many other Chinese folktales about love.
In only a few Chinese folk love stories can be found a description of the physical appearances of the hero and heroine.
In the "Butterfly Lovers", the heroine, dressed as a boy to attend school, falls in love with a classmate. After they have lived together as classmates for years, the hero did not have the slightest clue that his best friend is actually a girl!
With such a cultural background, it is almost impossible to find in ancient Chinese literature any descriptions of characteristics with obvious sexual appeal. Lots of simile and metaphors are used to describe the beauty of people but almost no specific description of what they really look like.
It is absolutely impossible to find out the actual size of the widely acclaimed "Waist of Xiao Man", or the weight of Zhao Feiyan, who was said to be so light as to be able to "dance on men's palms".
The seventh day of the seventh lunar month is the only Chinese festival devoted to love in the Lunar calendar.
Unlike St. Valentine's Day in Western countries there is not so much emphasis on giving chocolates, flowers and kisses. Instead, Chinese girls prepare fruits, melons and incense as offerings to Zhi Nu, the weaving maiden, praying to acquire high skills in needlecraft, as well as hoping to find satisfactory husbands.
In the evening, people sit outdoors to observe the stars.
Chinese grannies would say that, if you stand under a grapevine, you can probably overhear what Zhi Nu and Niu Lang are talking about.
( Shanghai Star August 19, 2002)