valentine’s day, eastern style

On Monday, my mom surprised me with a little tidbit from her past: Back when she was taking English classes, she wrote an essay on the difference between Chinese Valentine’s Day and Western Valentine’s Day. Immediately I requested to see it, which would make this job easier — no such luck, as the teacher had loved the manuscript enough to keep it to save as a sample for future classes. Besides, this class had to have been nearly thirty years ago.

I of course had no idea there was a “Chinese Valentine’s Day,” so I consulted my good pal Google and yielded convoluted results. Asking to confirm and clarify things with my parents proved useless, so I’m left here to explain with a superficial knowledge of this holiday. (Please don’t judge me. I’ll do better in the future.) If you’d like to read the exact article itself, please visit it on Wikipedia. The following is my paraphrased version/interpretation.

Of course, Chinese Valentine’s Day isn’t actually called Valentine’s Day; it’s called the Qixi Festival — it takes place on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar (naturally!), and in English can be referred to as “the Night of Skills,” “Festival to Plead for Skills,” or especially in Cantonese, “the Seventh Sister’s Birthday.” Incidentally, this year, the Qixi Festival takes place on 23 August. (It pretty much always falls in August.) Anyway, the background of this festival involves a tragic tale of literally star-crossed lovers that explains a yearly occurrence of the celebration, which began in the Han Dynasty, when people worshipped the stars.

In the late summer, there are two stars that shine high, presumably in the Chinese sky at that time: Altair and Vega. These stars are linked to the legend of the cowherd and the weaver girl. . . .

Legend has it that there was a cowherd named Niulang. And there was a “seventh daughter” of the Goddess of Heaven; her name was Zhinü, and she was especially skilled at weaving. One day, Zhinü escaped from the heavens to Earth in search of fun. Girl met boy, and they fell in love. They got married in secret, and even managed to have two kids before big mama found out.

The Goddess of Heaven, upon discovering her divine daughter had left the heavens to be with a mere mortal, was enraged. She immediately ordered Zhinü back to the skies to weave more clouds.

Niulang, of course, was rather distressed at his wife’s disappearance. His ox suddenly spoke to him, telling him if he killed it and wore its hide, he’d then be able to go into the heavens to find his wife.

Niulang did as the ox said, and carried his children up with him up to the heavens to search for Zhinü.

The Goddess of Heaven, it seems, was more savvy about the happenings on her own turf, and upon discovering Niulang’s presence there, she became enraged. (Talk about toxic mothers-in-law!) She pulled out her hairpin and scratched the heavens apart, forming the Milky Way between the two stars that represent the two lovers, Altair and Vega.

This rift in the stars thus divides the lovers forever. Except for the one day a year, the seventh day of the seventh month on the lunar calendar, when the Goddess of Heaven, touched by their love, takes a little pity on the separated lovers, her daughter Zhinü weaving away by herself, and poor Niulang still rearing their children, and allows them to unite (must be one steamy rendezvouz!).

Tradition calls for offerings to the cursed couple, Zhinü and Niulang, consisting of blossoms, fruit, tea, and face powder. People place garlands in their yards, and the single or newly married women of the house make the offerings. In this practice, the women are “bound in beauty” with Zhinü.

There’s more. Girls can test their embroidery prowess by tossing a sewing needle into a bowl of water — whether the needle floats (good) or sinks (bad) directly reflects the girl in question’s skills. And the day is also time for prayer: Recent brides pray for a quick pregnancy, and single girls ask for a good husband.

Apparently Western V-Day has been “imported” on its traditional “solar calendar” date 14 February, and Chinese men gift their sweethearts flowers, candy, or both. In Taiwan, though, men give presents to their ladies on Valentine’s, and women reciprocate on what’s called “White Day” (a month later on 14 March).

On that note, hope you all enjoyed your respective Valentine’s Days, whether it was lunar or solar!