Wednesday, August 18, 2010

An Annual Love Story: The Cowherd and the Weaving Girl

Despite the theme of the 'Good Brothers' during this 7th month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar, there is also an interesting celebration or rather a day to commemorate a great love story.

Yes, in the midst of all the rituals and prayers for the deceased who now roam the earth, the 7th day of this month celebrates one of the most touching legendary folktale of the romance of the cowherd and the weaving girl, who only meets once a year on this very day.
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Now, why, do you ask, if it is such a great love story, do they meet only once in a year?

Well, the story is like this:

Once upon a time, there was a poor boy who was orphaned at a very young age. Due to his parents' early demise, he had to fend on his own and it was his luck that he found an old ox which he took care of and helped him to plough the fields in the village.
He worked hard at the fields and earned a honest living.

One day, he was walking and stopped by a river where he was astonished by the sight he saw. There were seven beautiful young maidens bathing and playing in the river.
(Unknown to him, these seven maidens were the daughters of the Jade Emperor in heaven and they were immortals)
When they realized his presence, they fled the place immediately but one, was left behind.
She was the 7th daughter of the Jade Emperor and they fell in love.

They married and led a peaceful life until the Jade Emperor found out about her disappearance. (it is believed that one day on Heaven is equivalent to two years on earth)
It did not take the Emperor long to discover her and he was in a rage upon discovering his daughter had married a mortal.

He commanded her to be back in Heaven, much to the despair of the two lovers.
The old ox, suddenly spoke and told the cowherd that it wanted to repay his kindness all this while, by offering its hide as a mode of transportation to Heaven to bring his wife back.

The Jade Emperor, upon realizing the Cowherd's intentions, created a huge river and a valley to separate them.
(This river is known as the Silver River to the East; and the Milky Way to the west).

The 7th Princess was devastated, and the Jade Empress, pleaded with the Jade Emperor for mercy on their daughter.
The Jade Emperor then allowed the lovers to meet only once a year and all the magpies, touched by the story, pledged to reunite the lovers by gathering annually to form the bridge across the river.

(Another version of the story is this:)
The 7th princess in Heaven, who was responsible for weaving the clouds always yearned for true love and also a taste of mortal life on earth. Therefore, she snuck down to Earth secretly to take a peek at the life there. It was there she saw the Cowherd and how hard he worked that she was fascinated by him.

She noticed how each day he would take a container of rice with little vegetables which he would place by the side of the fields while he plowed and by noon, his lunch would have been cold. She secretly replaced his lunch each day and also mend his straw shoes left on the side as well.
The cowherd was surprised to find his food warm and hot for the first day, and also how tasty his food was and how his shoes seemed to feel like brand new but yet, he could not figure out what had taken place.
On the third day finally, he pretended to plow and hid behind the trees.

It was then he spotted the 7th princess changing his lunch and he called out to her.
He was struck by her beauty and he fell in love with her.
They then married and lived happily.
The Cowherd continued to plow his fields while the 7th princess sewed his clothes and make his food.
She weaved nice brocades once in a while for their living as well.
Soon, they had two children as well and life was great.

The other princesses were terrified when they realized their sister was missing and went down to earth to plead with her to return to Heaven. However, the princess refused to leave her wonderful life now.

The Jade Emperor soon found out and flew in a great rage.
He ordered the princess to be back in Heaven or the Cowherd and the children will be in grave danger. The princess, fearing for their lives, returned to Heaven.

The Cowherd was miserable with her departure and set on a trip with the children to search for her, and to find ways to get to Heaven.

The Jade Emperor realized this and created a huge river and valley which made it impossible for him to cross over (The Silver River).

The separation touched the Empress who pleaded for the Jade Emperor to spare the two lovers and they were allowed to meet once a year.
The magpies were all touched by this great love they had and vowed to form a bridge for the lovers every year.

This is truly a touching love story; and there were so many different versions that I have read since I was a kid.
Sometimes, one tend to get confused with the stories as well; and this was somehow similar to the west's Swan Princess.

Anyway, back to the legend, the date which was set for them to meet each year was coincidentally on the 7th day of the 7th month.
Furthermore, the princess/weaving girl was herself the 7th princess and therefore, the number double seven became an auspicious and good number to the believers.

This day was known by the several names; the most common being Qixi Festival (Chinese: 七夕节).
I know it by the Cantonese version: The Seventh Sister's Birthday (traditional Chinese: 七姊誕)

In one of the sources, it seems that the seven princesses were also looked up upon to protect their young
(Source: TiT Culture)
To Love and Protect

The double seventh is also an important day for young people. Chiniangma, literally meaning "seven mothers," is the name of the Weaving Maid and her six elder sisters, whom the Chinese believe are protectors of children under 16. A custom begun in the Ching dynasty requires parents, when a child reaches one year of age, to use a red thread to tie old coins under the child's neck, a protective amulet from Chiniangma. In the past, some people have substituted a silver coin or even a gold medal for the old coin. The red thread is replaced with a new one on every double seventh until the child grows up.

A person is considered grown up when he or she reaches 16; and a rite to mark the occasion is performed on the double seventh--the birthday of Chiniangma. This is somewhat confusing, since Chiniangma is a unified name; some claim the birthday is the Weaving Maid's, and some assert it belongs to the oldest sister--one more debating topic for the mortals of China.
In Taiwan, this Chiniangma custom is most prevalent in the Tainan area; on the double seventh, people go to Kailung Temple, which is almost 200 years old, and make 16-year-olds perform the ritual passage to adulthood by crawling under the offering table and by circling and passing under, three times, a miniature seven-story pagoda made of bamboo and paper and held up high by their parents.

For the Chinese woman who craves to have a child, double seventh is the best day of the year to beg Chusheng Niangniang, the Goddess of Birth. Who is this merciful goddess? She could be the Weaving Maid or any of her sisters, or any other goddess. There is no single answer; anyway, all some Chinese women care about is a child in their arms.

Coins tied with a red thread and hung around a child's neck are used as a protective amulet in the tradition of Chiniangma.

This festival, from what I know, is also a day where young unmarried women (or any unmarried women) to pray to the seven sisters for their love destiny and to meet the man of their dreams since the ancient days.
Young girls especially and maidens would put on their best clothes and pray for a beautiful love story like that of the Cowherd and Weaving Girl.

There are also a few things to note about this festival:
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1. You will not see magpies on this particular day; the 7th day of the 7th month as they will all have flown to form the bridge for the lovers as pledged.
(If you do now know how does a magpie look like, check out that bird on your Twitter account =)

2. It is also known as the Chinese Valentine's Day to celebrate this amazing love story (Another Chinese Valentine's Day is on the 15th day of the first spring)

3. It may rain on this day as well, and the older women would always say that it is the Weaving Girl crying again.

Tears of joy or sadness?
I don't know, but if you were only allowed to meet once a year with your beloved husband and children, I bet you would cry as well!

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