Look up at the night sky; do you see the Milky Way? Do you see traces in the sky of that massive galaxy of which our own solar system is a part? Do you see the star Vega? How about the star Altair?
One of the oldest and most beloved of Chinese folktales is a love story—that of The Weaver Girl and the Cowherd. It is believed that the star Vega represents the Weaver Girl and the star Altair, the Cowherd.
According to legend, just once each year, on the seventh eve of the seventh lunar month, the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd are permitted to cross a temporary bridge—created by a massive gathering of 10,000 magpies—over heaven’s “Silver River” (what the Chinese call the Milky Way) so that they may be together.
This popular love story is over two millennia old. The earliest known version is found in the 2600-year-old Shījīng (Classic of Poetry). This ancient tale is the inspiration behind the summertime lovers’ festival known as Qīxì—Seventh Eve—celebrated not only in China and Taiwan but also in Korea (Chilseok) and Japan (Tanabata). The following is the romantic tale of The Weaver Girl and the Cowherd.
Once upon a time, the Silver River divided the world into the realm of the gods on its east bank and the realm of mortals on its west.
On the west side of the sacred Silver River, there lived a poor, orphaned youth known only as the Cowherd. He was thus called because he was often seen herding his elder brother’s cattle alone while skillfully playing a bamboo flute to pass his time. Eventually, as he came of age, the Cowherd, blessed by his brother with the gift of a single aged bull, set out on his own to make a living.
After acquiring his own plot of land, the youth worked diligently and honestly—tilling the soil with his ox companion. In time, the cowherd was able to construct a humble dwelling near his plot of land and, despite being all alone, settled down nicely to his very own home.
On the other side of the Silver River dwelled the gods. The king of the gods had many beautiful daughters. His youngest and most fair was known as the Weaver Girl. She was thus called for her unparalleled skill in the art of weaving and is responsible for the myriad of colours and patterns seen adorning the sky each day and night.
One day, the Weaver Girl and her sisters crossed the Silver River and descended to tour the realm of the mortals. By chance, they landed near the home of the Cowherd. As the Weaver Girl and her sisters chatted with one another to pass the time, the Cowherd overheard their conversations and became acutely aware of his aloneness.
“If only I could have a companion like one of these fair maidens.” The cowherd mumbled to himself.
Upon hearing this, and much to the Cowherd’s surprise, the old ox, who had hitherto been the youth’s sole companion, began to speak.
“That won’t be a problem,” he said. “These are the daughters of the lord of heaven. They have come to the mortal realm donning coats made by gods and are only permitted to return to the other world while in possession of those coats. You need only to take one of these garments when they are unaware and one of the maidens will become your bride.”
As it turns out, the old ox had been a sacred bull who once dwelled among the gods but had been temporarily banished to the earthly realm after committing a crime. Because of this, the old ox was familiar with the workings of the heavenly realm. In his time among the mortals, he had witnessed the quiet, honest and diligent nature of the Cowherd and wished to lend him a hand in improving his prospects.
The Cowherd followed the old ox’s instructions and, while the Weaver Girl was absorbed in conversation with her sisters, he quietly slipped away with her coat.
When the time came for the heavenly maidens to return home, one by one they ascended to heaven with their coats but only the Weaver Girl was unable to do so. She began to panic as she searched desperately for her heavenly garment. Seeing this, the Cowherd regretted his heartless theft.
He appeared before the distressed maiden to return her coat and offered her his sincerest apologies. The maiden, touched by the Cowherd’s honesty, considered for a moment and decided to remain in the mortal realm to be his companion.
Eventually, love blossomed between the unlikely pair and they became married. A year later, twins—a boy and a girl—were born to their union and they lived happily as a family. He continued to work the land with the old ox and she continued weaving at their home.
Back in the heavenly realm, the king of gods was furious at this illicit union of the divine and the mortal. He did not approve of his youngest daughter’s marriage and ordered the Queen Mother to recall the Weaver Girl.
As ordered, the Queen Mother appeared before the young family and demanded the Weaver Girl’s return to the realm of the gods. Unable to resist, the poor young mother and wife was deeply saddened as she ascended to heaven—leaving behind her loving husband and children.
Then, the old ox, once again spoke. He explained that he was nearing his allotted time in the mortal realm and that, after his death, the Cowherd ought to take his hide and construct a pair of boots out of it. The boots, made from the hide of the sacred ox, would give the Cowherd the ability to enter the heavenly realm.The Cowherd followed the instructions he was given after the old ox’s death and with his enchanted boots, he picked up his two children and went after his wife.
The Cowherd followed the instructions he was given after the old ox’s death and with his enchanted boots, he picked up his two children and went after his wife.
The Cowherd and his children were stopped, however, at the Silver River which marked the boundary between the two realms. The gods still did not approve of their union and had caused the Silver River to swell, preventing the Cowherd from advancing.
At this impasse, a flock of 10,000 magpies, impressed by the bond between the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, gathered to form a bridge across the raging Silver River, allowing the Cowherd and his children to enter the heavenly realm.
The gods, witnessing this miracle, finally relented and permitted the pair to reunite. However, a condition was laid out before the couple: “Gods are not meant to mingle with mortals” the couple was told. They, therefore, could not live together. The children were to remain with their father in the mortal realm and, once each year—on the seventh eve of the seventh lunar month, the Cowherd was permitted bring the children to meet with the Weaver Girl on the magpie bridge across the Silver River.
Because of this tale, the seventh eve of the seventh lunar month came to be celebrated as the Far Eastern equivalent of Valentine’s Day and the stars Vega and Altair—representing the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd—came to symbolize the true romantic love associated with this story.