Love is in the air! The so-called Chinese Valentine’s Day is coming. In Taiwan, it is better known as Qixi Festival (七夕 Qīxì) or Qixi Valentine’s Day (七夕情人節 Qīxì qíngrén jié). It’s on July 7th of the lunar calendar, which usually falls in the August (in 2018 August 17th is the key date) in the solar calendar system. Actually, it’s also celebrated in other countries in the Chinese character culture circle, including Japan, Korea and Vietnam.
Legend of Qixi Festival
A long time ago, there was a young man called Niúláng (牛郎). He worked as cow-herd for his elder brother and his wife. Unfortunately his sister-in-law didn’t treat him well. She told him to pasture their nine buffaloes in meadow but had to bring ten back home. If he didn’t bring the tenth home, he could never go back. Niúláng felt helpless and depressed. Later, he found an old and weak buffalo in the mountain. Due to his careful care, the old buffalo was recovering gradually. He also surprisingly found that the buffalo could speak. From then on, they had become good friends.
Encounter with Zhīnǚ
One day, Niúláng followed the old buffalo to a river. There he saw seven young and beautiful girls bathing in the river. According to the buffalo, they were fairies, daughters of Jade Emperor, the greatest god in the heaven. With the help of the buffalo, Niúláng secretly hid the clothes of one of them.
After finishing the bath, all the fairies put on their clothes and left. However, since one of the fairies couldn’t find her clothes, she started to cry in the water. Niúláng came out at this moment and introduced himself to her. Actually she was the youngest daughter, named Zhīnǚ (織女). That’s how they met.
A forbidden love between fairy and mortal
Later, they fell in love, got married, had two kids and lived a happy life. However, Zhīnǚ’s parents were furious that she married a mortal therefore went down to the earth to take her back. After leaving, the dying old buffalo told Niúláng that after his death he could use his cowhide to make leather shoes which could take him up to heaven. Holding back his sadness, Niúláng did what the buffalo told him and flew to Zhīnǚ with their two children.
Nonetheless, while Niúláng was reaching to Zhīnǚ, the Queen Mother (mother of Zhīnǚ) used her hairpin to draw a line which converted into the Milky Way and thus separated the couple. Out of sympathy, the magpies (喜鵲 xǐquè) united together to form a bridge (the so called 鵲橋 quèqiáo) over the Galaxy, allowing Niúláng and Zhīnǚ to reunite. When seeing all this, the Queen Mother was a little touched, and thus permitted them to meet each other but only once a year on every July 7th (of the lunar calendar). That’s also why you will see that Vega (織女星 Zhīnǚxīng) and Altair (牛郎星 Niúlángxīng) are on the opposite sides of the Galaxy in the sky.
Traditional celebration on Qixi Festival
Since Zhīnǚ is widely believed to be beautiful, intelligent and talented, females usually worship her in the evening of Qixi Festival in order to ask for wisdom and talent. As a result, it’s also called 乞巧節 Qǐqiǎo jié (literal translation: Begging-skills Day).
Furthermore, due to the fact those females who worship Zhīnǚ are often unmarried ladies, Qixi festival is given another name 女兒節 Nǚ’ér jié (Daughter’s Day). Traditionally, females gather in the front yard or at the front door, setting an altar with incense sticks with many oblations to honour Zhīnǚ. In Taiwan, Zhīnǚ is widely known by her Taiwanese name 七娘媽 Qī niáng mā (Taiwanese pronunciation: Tshit-niû-má). Legend has it that July 7th is also her birthday.
Traditional food for Qixi Festival
On the altar, you can see three kinds of typical food, which are 油飯 yóufàn, 麻油雞酒 máyóujījiǔ and 軟粿 ruǎn guǒ.
Yóufàn is made of sticky rice. People usually prepare it sweet or salty. If it is sweet, it contains brown sugar, sake and dried longan. If it is salty, then they add dried small shrimp, red onion, squid, pork, mushroom, soy sauce and sesame oil in it.
Regardless of Qixi Festival, it’s also a tradition that parents give yóufàn to relatives and friends when their babies are one-month old.
The ingredients of Máyóujījiǔ include chicken, ginger, sesame oil, sake and salt.
It smells so good that nobody can resist it. It’s not only eaten during Qixi Festival.
According to the custom, after giving birth, women should also eat this traditional dish to regain their energy.
軟粿 ruǎn guǒ
Ruǎn guǒ is actually very similar to a sticky rice ball. The only difference is when making it people should poke a hole in its centre to make it appear like a bowl.
It is believed that the function of the hole is to keep the tears of Zhīnǚ.
Other oblations for Qixi Festival
Sometimes maybe you notice that people also put white makeup powder, rouge, a comb and a round mirror on the altar.
Furthermore, there’s a basin of water and a towel on a small chair next to it. They are actually oblations for Zhīnǚ.
Therefore, she can dress up and get prepared to meet her beloved Niúláng. Also, there is a number of globe amaranth, which symbolizes the wish to have many descendants.
Children and Qixi Festival
Not only the incarnation of beauty and talent, Zhīnǚ is also considered to be the patron deity of children (under 16 years-old). Thus on this day, people also worship Zhīnǚ to ask for her protection and blessing for their children’s growth. Moreover, 床母 Chuáng mǔ (Bed Mother, Taiwanese pronunciation: Tshn̂g-bú) is another children’s patron as well, whom people always honour on the same day.
For this reason, it is related to the traditional Coming-of-age Ceremony. According to the custom, when children are 16 years old, they will hold the ceremony and thank Zhīnǚ and Bed Mother for their caring along those years.
Modern celebration on Qixi Festival
Apart from those interesting legends and complicated traditions, people also take advantage of this day to celebrate with their lover or express their love to someone they like. Flowers, gifts, cards, chocolate and a romantic dinner or date are all indispensable. Just like Western Valentine’s Day on February 14th.
Additionally, you can also participate in many kinds of Valentine’s Day celebration in different cities around Taiwan. For example, Tainan City Government claims that Tainan is the “City of Love” since it’s the origin of the belief of the Taiwanese Matchmaker God. Furthermore, they have many more Matchmaker God temples than any other cities in Taiwan. Combining the local culture and history, every year they organize a series of events during the whole month to celebrate Qixi Festival, which make it more like a carnival of love.
Rain or tears?
By the way, while you are busy spending this day with your special one, don’t forget to keep your eyes open for the weather. Legend has it that it always rains on Qixi Festival because Niúláng and Zhīnǚ are crying in their annual reunion.
Is it merely a legend? Well, although it sounds rather bizarre, some people have proven that according to their annual observation, it really rains every July 7th without exception.
Last but not the least, on behalf of LTL Taiwan, I would like to wish everyone:
七夕情人節快樂！ Qīxì qíngrén jié kuàilè!
Happy Qixi Valentine’s Day!
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