FLOCKS of colorful magpies today will form a bridge over the Milky Way, enabling the Cowherd and Weaving Maid to be reunited for one day each year.
The love story of the ordinary mortal, Cowherd (Niu Lang 牛郎), and the fairy Weaving Maid (Zhi Nu 织女) is one of the most popular legends in China and is cited on the Qixi Festival, or Double Seventh Festival, on the seventh day of the seventh month in Chinese lunar calendar.
This year it falls today.
On this particular day, not only is there a celestial coupling, but also young women on Earth will pray for deft fingers, like those of the Weaving Maid, to help them win a husband with their domestic skills.
They pray in various ceremonies and activities, which is why it is also called the Qi Qiao Jie (乞巧节), literally Praying for Dexterity Festival.
The Cowherd was an orphan with only an old bull for company. He came upon a group of fairies bathing and splashing in a river. The bull told him to hide one fairy’s gown so that she could not fly away. The Weaving Maid could not find her gown and finally agreed to marry the Cowherd. They led a happy life with the Cowherd ploughing and the Weaving Maid weaving. They had a son and a daughter.
Their marriage of mortal and immortal violated the laws of Heaven and angered the Queen Mother of the West. She descended to Earth and seized the Weaving Maid when her husband was gone. The Cowherd and children chased in search of her.
Just when he was about to catch the Weaving Maid, the Queen Mother took her hairpin out and scratch it in the sky. That created a rushing river of stars immediately in front of the Cowherd, blocking his path. The river, Yin He (银河), literally silver river, is known as the Milky Way.
The Weaving Maid and the Cowherd are stars on opposite different sides of that impassable river. Vega is the Weaving Maid and Altair is the Cowherd.
Touched by their love, magpies once a year form a bridge across the river, allowing the couple to cross it and be reunited for a day.
Though the Double Seventh Festival is more often known today as Chinese Valentine’s Day for sweethearts, it is traditionally a festival for girls.
Having clever hands and nimble fingers was a marriage asset for girls in ancient China, therefore, single girls wished for weaving skills like those of the legendary Weaving Maid. On the festival, they pray for dexterity.
Women and girls gather at night at an table covered with snacks and offerings. After burning incense and kowtowing to Vega, the star of the Weaving Maid, they pray for clever hands, a good husband or a good sun. Then they eat the snacks.
The girls also take part in dexterity competitions, devotional activities that include threading needs, embroidery and making delicate snacks.
Threading a needle
As a devotional act, girls must thread a seven-eye needle outdoor in moonlight. It’s very demanding because of the tiny needle eyes, dim light and wine. The one who first succeeds is praised and known as qiao (巧) or dextrous. The others are called shu qiao (输巧), losing clever hands.
The seven-hole needle is long gone. Today embroidery needles are used.
Since spiders are natural weavers, girls catch a spider on the Double Seventh Festival and keep it in a small box overnight, praying they will be able to spin and weave like the spider. The boxes are opened the next day and the spider webs are checked. The denser the web, the more qiao (dextrous) the owner is believed to have collected.
Throwing a needle into water
This tradition arose from the needle threading competition. Girls will drop a fine needle into a bowl of water at midday. Tilting the bowl slightly makes the needle float. Girls check the shadow of the needle in the water. If it moves like floating clouds or a blooming flower, it suggests the girl is gaining qiao; if the shadow hardly moves, it suggests fumbling fingers.
On the Double Seventh Festival, it is important for girls south of the Yangtze River to wash their hair. It is believed that water from a spring or river on this particular day is as pure as that from the Yin He, the silver river that separated the Weaving Maid and Cowherd. Such hair washing is believed to win protection of the Weaving Maid.
Some girls collect dew in a basin on that day, since it is believed that the dew are the tears of joy of the reunited Cowherd and Weaving Maid. Placing dew on the eyelids and on the hands can help a girl acquire a “quick eye and a deft hand.”
Eating qiao guo (dexterity snack)
Various qiao guo (巧果), literally dexterity snacks, are popular on this day. They mostly refer to a fried food made of flour, sesame and molasses that can be made into various shapes with a clever hand. Other dexterity snacks are delicately carved fruits, especially melons.