Qi Xi 7th Sister Festival:
The Cowherd, The Weaver Girl and the Magpie Bridge


Poem by Meng Jiao, Tang Dynasty

My late granny used to celebrate every single existing Chinese festival. After the Duan-Wu Festival in the fifth Lunar month, there is Lu-Ban Festival (which celebrates the great Chinese carpenter in ancient China) in the sixth month, and on the seventh day of the seventh month, there is Qi-Xi (pronounced as chi-see if your main language is English) Festival, or the 7th Sister Festival, before the arrival of another main festival: the Mid Autumn Festival in the eighth month.

The Qi-Xi festival is not very widely celebrated, due to its origins and its niche following. But in my much earlier memory, I used to love the Qi-Xi because of the harmonious feeling it gave me, as all the female family members sat on the back balcony at night with all the fresh flowers, fresh fruits and finger food, praying to the stars and I was never tired of listening to all the old legends my late granny had in store for me.

It is based on a Chinese legend about the stars Altair (Star of the Cowherd) and Vega (Star of the Weaver Girl). Zhi-Nu the Weaver Girl (in some variations she is also the seventh daughter of the Heavenly King, Yu-Di; some said she was one of His granddaughters) was a beautiful Goddess in heaven, and she was best known for her skilful hands that weave all sorts of beautiful materials and clothes; whilst Niu-Lang was a poor but hardworking cowherd on earth who only inherited an old cow from his late father. The two were separated by the Milky Way (described as a silver river), which flowed between heaven and earth. To thank Niu-Lang for his good care, the old cow (apparently was a fairy in some ways) created an opportunity for Niu-Lang to meet with Zhi-Nu and later fell for her.

The Heavenly King agreed to marry the two, and allowed Niu-Lang to stay in heaven. However, the couple had been too engrossed in the happiness and ignored their daily duties as the cowherd and the weaver. This had angered the Heavenly King and He decided to separate them on each side of the Milky Way, and only allowed them to meet once every year on the 7th day of the 7th month. The magpies felt for the couple and formed a bridge across the Milky Way, to help Niu-Lang and Zhi-Nu meet each other.

Another version that I heard was that Niu-Lang had missed his life back on earth, but the Heavenly King had married them with the condition that Niu-Lang will stay in heaven forever. The breaching of promise had lead to the punishment from the angry Heavenly King, but agreed to let them meet up again if the Milky Way dried up. Hence Niu-Lang taking their children, scooping water from the Milky Way everyday in the hope of drying up the river. His act had moved Yu-Di the Heavenly King, who decided to let them meet once every seven days. The Magpie who was the messenger however, conveyed the wrong message as "meeting every 7th day of the 7th month". To seek forgiveness from the couple, the Magpie King summoned all the magpies to form the bridge, to help Niu-Lang and Zhi-Nu reach each other sooner.

For many years, the 7th day of the 7th month (Qi-Xi) had been celebrated amongst the younger girls. It was believed that worshipping the Weaver Girl goddess, one would be granted skills in embroidery like the goddess herself, and would be good at most house chores. In the olden days, the women’s fate was limited to being a good wife and mother, and good embroidery skill is like a girls's natural wealth. Therefore since the days of Han Dynasty, many young females, married or unmarried would pay homage and pray to the star on Qi-Xi festival, hoping to get a good match and to be a good homemaker.

There is no special food made for the day. My late granny, my mum and her sisters would normally set up an altar on the uncovered part of the balcony of our old house, and placed fresh flowers, assorted fruits and snacks along with jossticks and candles for prayers. There would also be some traditional Chinese cosmetics or powder placed on the side. A popular event of the night was to lead a thread through the needle facing the bright moon, and those who managed to do so are said to be crafty in embroidery.

Today’s modern women have their own careers and other achievements apart from being a housewife as the ultimate destination, that is why we see fewer and fewer of us paying attention to this festival. But it is still quite a popular festival in places like Hong Kong.