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.

Photo: Night-time person looking up at Milky Way

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.

Photo: Flying magpie
Magpie—an important part in the story 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.

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.

Photo: Cave art of man and ox

“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.”

he old ox, it turns out, had been a sacred bull who once dwelled among the gods but had been temporarily banished to the earthly realm after committing an offence.

Because of this, the old ox was familiar with the workings of heaven. 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 cruel theft.

He appeared before the distressed maiden to return her coat and offered her his apologies. The maiden, touched by the Cowherd’s honesty, decided to remain in the mortal realm to be his companion.

Love blossomed between the unlikely pair and, soon, they were married. A year later, twins—a boy and a girl—were born to their union and they lived happily as a family. The Cowherd continued to work the land with the old ox and the Weaver Girl continued weaving at their home.

Photo: Weaver at work

Back in the heavenly realm, the king of gods was furious at this improper 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 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 should 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 gods still did not approve of their union and had caused the Silver River to swell, preventing the Cowherd from advancing to Heaven.

At this impasse, a flock of 10,000 magpies gathered to form a bridge across the raging Silver River, allowing the Cowherd and his children to enter the heavenly realm.

The gods finally relented—somewhat— and ordered that the children were to remain with their father in the mortal realm, but once each year, on the seventh eve of the seventh lunar month, the Cowherd was permitted to bring the children to meet with the Weaver Girl on the magpie bridge across the Silver River.

Today, the seventh eve of the seventh lunar month is 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.