It’s almost Valentine’s Day and that means: Qixi/Tanabata!
Qixi/Tanabata is typically called the equivalent to “Valentine’s Day” because it’s a holiday about lovers, though Valentine’s Day is very popular in Japan where a girl gives chocolates to a boy she likes. The legend starts in the Han Dynasty but has its own poem which will follow below in the original Chinese and its English translation.
Qixi, known as Tanabata in Japan, started in China some time around the Han Dynasty and is an early example of what my teacher once described as “moon love”, where (heterosexual) romances in China are typically marked by distance - literal or not, separation, loss, longing, and often puts “duty” and “passion” against each other.
Qixi (七夕 or qixi jie 七夕节, 节 meaning “festival”) in Chinese is often translated as “the night of sevens” because in China the Qixi Festival falls on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar - which typically puts Qixi in August. In Japanese, Qixi is translated into Tanabata. The big difference is that Japan’s Tanabata Night follows the Gregorian calendar and not the lunar one which puts it on the seventh day of the seventh month in Gregorian calendar terms - meaning July 7th.
The mythology is relatively the same, though certain versions list things differently. It starts with the Ox Herder, known as 牛郎 or Niu Lang in Chinese and Hikoboshi in Japanese and the Weaver Girl, known as 织女 or Zhi Nu, known as Orihime in Japanese.
Some legends say that the Ox Herder was a servant of the Emperor, where others say he was a regular mortal. Most legends go with the latter where the Ox Herder was a poor boy who was raised on Earth and only had a cow. The cow is secretly an immortal who was expelled from Heaven. Here’s where the legends really start to diverge:
The Chinese legend tends to go for “love at first sight” where the Weaver Girl is looking for more fun because her job was to weave clouds. As an aside, cloud weaving is actually fairly common in mythology, for instance Frigga the wife of Odin also wove the clouds. But the Weaver Girl travels to the mortal plane and meets the Ox Herder and they fall in love and have children together while she neglects her duty. In the legends that state that the Ox Herder worked for the Emperor, he was also neglecting his duty.
The Japanese gets a little more… non-consensual with their legend. The story goes that the ox that was an immortal decided to pay the Ox Herder back for being such a good guy and tells him where some of the immortals bathe; sometimes the word “immortal” is translated as “fairy”. So, he goes to see the ladies and finds seven sisters bathing. The youngest one is the Weaver Girl. The legends state that he either realized he was being a big creeper and came out and they fell in love… or the not so nice one where he comes out and snatches the Weaver Girl as his wife. Now some differences in the latter one have it as her being very happy all things considered and others have it where he’s kind of a big creep and steals her hagoromo which is a kind of garment that the immortals use to get to Heaven and back and makes her his wife. The legend of the hagoromo is very popular in Noh theater and while not connected to Tanabata, it’s a fairly common story of a guy who’s watching an immortal bathe and steals it.
All things considered, the Qixi/Tanabata legend implies love. So the legend goes that the two were happy together and loved each other but the Empress of Heaven (sometimes the Emperor or the father of the Ox Herder etc.) sees that the two are together and the Weaver Girl is neglecting her work and forces her back to Heaven, leaving the Ox Herder (and their children) there.
The ox that was an immortal then tells the Ox Herder to kill him and wear his hide so that the Ox Herder can go up to Heaven and meet with her. And the Ox Herder cries and cries and eventually does it, making his way to Heaven to meet with the Weaver Girl and they’re happy again.
This enrages the Empress (or whoever told them to stay away from each other) and so she takes out her great hairpin and slashes the sky in half to keep them apart, the slash then becoming the Milky Way.
The legend states that the two cry and wait all year round but every year (on Qixi/Tanabata) the magpies form a bridge to link the two lovers for one day. The term “magpie bridge” is sometimes used idiomatically when two lovers meet each other after a long period of separation.
In terms of astronomy, the myth actually refers to the stars Altair and Vega who come very close across the Milky Way once a year.
Vietnamese culture also has their version of Qixi which is Ngưu Lang Chức Nữ and it’s pretty much the same legend, though it goes a bit farther by describing what happens if it rains or it’s cloudy which keeps the lovers apart without having met that year and so the rain is the tears from both of them.
The Immortal At the Magpie Bridge / Que Qiao Xian by Qin Guan
A Clouds float like works of art;
Stars shoot with grief at heart.
Across the Milky Way the Cowherd meets the Maid.
When autumn’s Golden Wind embraces Dew of Jade,
All the love scenes on earth, however many, fade.
Their tender love flows like a stream;
This happy date seems but a dream.
Can they bear a separate homeward way?
If love between both sides can last for aye,
Why need they stay together night and day?
作 者： 秦 观
Zuò zhĕ: Qín guān
Xiān yún nòng qiăo, fēi xīng chuán hèn, yín hàn tiáo tiáo àn dù
Jīn fēng yù lù yì xiāng féng, biàn shèng què rén jiān wú shù
Róu qíng sì shuĭ, jiā qī rú mèng, rĕn gù què qiáo guī lù
Liăng qíng ruò shì jiŭ cháng shí, yòu qĭ zài zhāo zhāo mù mù
Side Note: The only thing that really bothers me about the English translation of Chinese poems is that it tries to preserve the rhyme scheme, which is nice since you can see how it rhymes but sometimes it’s not always exact. But that’s always a big issue with translations - do you choose style or substance, form or function? Translating poetry is a butt.