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A sad tale for all generations
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-02-14 09:20

The seventh day of the seventh month on the lunar calendar, which usually falls in early August on the Gregorian calendar, is the Chinese equivalent of Valentine's Day. It originates from a mythological story that is rich in cultural implications and has been transformed, in one way or another, into more operas, movies and poems than the source of its Western counterpart.

It is one of the most heart-breaking romantic fairy tales in the civilized world, tinged with such deep-rooted sadness that no amount of re-interpretation or variation can dispel.

Jade Emperor, who rules the universe, has seven daughters, the youngest of whom is called "Zhinu" (Weaving Maid). She is smart and beautiful, and is a dexterous seamstress. Zhinu joins her sisters in their daily bathing at a lake on earth, which is located on the east side of a mountain.

Not far from the lake lives Niulang (Cowherd), a young farmer who ekes out a meagre living. He has only one cow. Niulang's parents died young and he lives with his elder brother and sister-in-law. But she doesn't like him, and so plots to get rid of him. Finally, Niulang moves out with only his old cow.

It turns out that the cow is no earthly animal. It is the reincarnation of the Jinniu Star (Golden Cow, or the constellation of Taurus in astrological parlance), which had violated imperial rules and was sent on exile to earth in the form of a cow.

Either out of kindness for nice guy Niulang or revenge for the emperor, Jinniu the Cow opens its mouth and tells Niulang the secret recipe of nabbing Zhinu: he should steal her clothes while she was frolicking in the lake, and when she comes out of the water, she would have no choice but to marry him.

Niulang takes the advice and gets into a mischievous mode. Zhinu becomes desperate when she finds out that her garb has vanished. But when she sees Niulang, she falls in love. They join hands in holy matrimony and lead a life that, for thousands of years since, has been considered the epitome of happy marriage: He tills the land while she weaves. They have a son and a daughter.

However, word of Zhinu's bathing trip-turned-elopement finally reaches the emperor. Incensed, he sends the empress to fetch their disobedient daughter.

When Niulang comes home that day and finds his wife missing, he and the two kids burst into tears. Then he remembers the last words of the cow when it passed away and dons the cowhide in his pursuit. The magic power of the cowhide sends him on a chase that enables him to soon catch up with the abducting empress.

Suffice it to say that the empress is not pleased to see her "unauthorized" son-in-law. She takes out her hair-pin and swipes it across the sky. It swells into a raging river, separating husband and wife. In despair, Niulang and the children weep at the river side. Their anguish finally moves the emperor, who allows Niulang and Zhinu to meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, or Qixi.

If one looks up the sky, one can see a bright star in the constellation Aquila, which Chinese myth has identified as Niulang, on the west of the Milky Way, and the star Vega on the east of the Milky Way, representing Zhinu.

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