If it rains heavily on Qi Xi’ Eve, 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 in early August. This year it falls on Thursday, August 24.
As the story goes, once there was a cowherd, Niulang, who lived with his elder brother and sister-in-law. But she disliked and abused him, and the boy was forced to leave home with only an old cow for company.
The cow, however, was a former god who had violated imperial rules and was sent to earth in bovine form.
One day the cow led Niulang to a lake where fairies took a bath on earth. 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 and their happy life was held up as an example for hundreds of years in China.
Yet in the eyes of the Jade Emperor, the Supreme Deity in 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 as 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 can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).