Cowboy & the Weaving Girl

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The family met on the magpie bridge on the seventh day of the seventh month on the Chinese lunar calendar.

A brief introduction to popular Chinese religion is conducive to the understanding of the legend.

Like ancient Greeks, the Chinese also believe in polytheism - a multi-god religious system. Gods are thought to be ubiquitous: above, upon and beneath the mortal world, consisting of Buddhist and Taoist figures as well as Confucius scholars who became deified. The Chinese believe that each of the worlds, namely, Heaven, Earth and Hell, is governed by a monarchical hierarchy with the Celestial Emperor being the supreme ruler.

It is popularly believed that the heavenly royal parents have seven beautiful daughters. Of them all, the youngest is the prettiest and brightest. There are quite a few legends about her. The one retold here is the most popular.

Once upon a time, there was a boy, clever, diligent and honest. Orphaned, his wicked big brother drove him out of home, giving him nothing but a decrepit buffalo. The animal, however, proved to be very loyal to the boy, trying its best to relieve him of the toil in the fields. The two friends are seen together all the time. Eventually the boy became known as the Cowherd....

They are the Aquila and the Lyra constellations. Altair, the brightest of the Aquila stars, with a smaller but still very bright star striding on each of its shoulders, is believed to be the Cowherd carrying his two children. Vega, the most brilliant of the Lyra constellation is believed to be the Weaving Girl and the four smaller stars in a diamond pattern to be her weaving shuttle. It appears to the Chinese that she is ceaselessly working on her fabric, perhaps for her two children whom she has a chance to see only once a year, on the evening of the seventh day of the seventh Chinese Lunar month.

Each year, on the seventh day of the seventh month on the Chinese lunar calendar, the birds would manage to gather enough force in number to form a bridge so that the family may at least have a brief reunion.

Incidentally, the occasion has since become the Chinese Valentine's Day. Moreover, the magpie has been regarded as a messenger of good tidings.

The creator of the story must have drawn inspiration from the astronomical observation: the most prominent feature in the sky of a mid-summer night on the northern hemisphere is the Milky Way flanked by the Lyra and the Aquila constellations*.

The legend in turn has been an inspiration for Chinese literary creation generation after generation. The two poems quoted below are but a few examples.

Tiáotiáo qiānniúxīng, jiǎojiǎo héhàn nǚ.
Xiānxiān zhuó sù shǒu, zhāzhā nòng jī zhù.
Zhōng rì bù chéng zhāng, qì tì líng rú yǔ.
Héhàn qīng qiě qiǎn, xiāng qù fù jǐ xǔ?
Yíngyíng yì shuǐ jiān, mòmò bù dé yǔ.
The star of the Cowboy high above; the star of the Weaving Girl clear and bright,
Her fair and dexterous hands busy, she weaves and weaves on the loom,
A day went by with no cloth finished; only tears rained down her cheeks in great volume.
The Silvery River clear and shallow, how far could they be apart?
Yet, separated by the sparkling waters, they could but face each other with silent gloom.
  by unknown (around 210)
Xiān yún nòng qiǎo, fēi xīng chuán hèn, yínhàn tiáotiáo àn dù.
Jīn fēng yù lù, yì xiāng féng, biàn shèng què rénjiān wú shù.
Róu qíng sì shuǐ, jiāqī rú mèng, rěn gù quèqiáo guī lù.
Liǎng qíng ruò shì jiǔ cháng shí, yòu qǐ zài zhāo zhāo mù mù.
Dainty clouds she dexterously weaves; her grief of separation the shooting stars transmit; and in secrecy, across Milky Way the river vast, they reunite.
Admidst golden wind and silvery frost, their yearly rendezvous proves more affectionate than many a worldly trysting night.
With feelings tender as water and after a date fleeting as a dream, they could hardly turn and embark on their homebound journey.
After all, when love is genuine and perpetual, it really matters not if a couple are always in each other's sight.
  by Qin Guan (1049-1100)

Copyright Haiwang Yuan,
Picture courtesy of Li Yu, Future Publishing House, China
First created: 1995
Latest update: August 17, 2004

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Last updated: July 20, 2015