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Hidden Hong Kong: History and traditions of the Qixi Festival (Chinese Valentine’s Day)

By Gabriella Lynn 3 August 2022

Header image courtesy of Saint Petersburg: The State Hermitage Museum (via Wikimedia Commons)

Love is in the hot summer air! Although the month of August is commonly associated with superstitions and spooky stories of the Hungry Ghost Festival, there is one day in this month that’s sweeter than others. Qixi Festival, also known as Chinese Valentine’s Day, falls on 4 August this year. But did you know that its origins had nothing to do with romance? Read on to take a closer look into the legend, history, and practices of the Qixi Festival.

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She was a god, he was a human

Also known as the Qiqiao Festival and Chinese Valentine’s Day, Qixi Festival falls on the seventh day of the seventh month of the Lunar calendar every year. Like many other traditional holidays and festivals, the Qixi Festival has a beautiful story to tell, too:

Once upon a time, Zhinü (織女; weaver girl)—the goddess of weaving and the seventh daughter of Tiandi (天帝; the emperor of heaven)—fell in love with a human named Niulang (牛郎; cowherd). They were happily married and had two children, but Tiandi was furious about their relationship, so he sent the heavenly guards to take Zhinü back to her home. 

With their kids, Niulang tried to chase after Zhinü, but he was blocked by the heavenly river—or the Milky Way. The two lovers stood across from each other and cried because of their bitter fate. Moved by their tears, the magpies agreed to build a bridge for them to meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month.

Not so romantic origins

But before the legend we know of today came into existence, Zhinü and Niulang were more like neighbours than lovers. The earliest record of this story can be found in a poem called “Da Dong” in The Book of Songs, which is largely written during the Western Zhou dynasty. 

As people were fascinated with the stars back then, the poem mentioned the Weaving Sisters, or Vega and two other stars in the Lyra constellation, and the Draught Oxen, also known as Altair. Easily seen with the naked eye, Vega and Altair sit across from each other at opposite ends of the Milky Way. At this point in time, the stars were already incorporated into folklore. The Weaving Sisters were said to be weavers, and the Draught Oxen was a cowherd or a transporter of goods. They were the blueprint of Zhinü and Niulang.

What this poem does not touch on is the relationship between the stars. It might have been unimportant to the poet, or it might have not existed. We don’t know when and how the Weaving Sisters and the Draught Oxen became Romeo and Juliet of the East, but by the Han dynasty (see poem number ten), the heart-breaking story has already taken shape.

Going back to the story, you might notice that the number seven shows up often. It might be because seven (“qī”) in Mandarin sounds like “jí” (吉; good fortune), thus conferring a lucky meaning upon the number. Seven also sounds exactly like “qī” (妻; wife), which, in this story celebrating love, makes for a great pun. Besides, the Milky Way is more visible during late summer, so it’s easier to spot the stars and pray to them during the seventh month. Whatever the reason, the ancient Chinese were quite obsessed with this number.

Traditional celebrations

As Zhinü is the goddess of weaving, the women of ancient China pleaded to her for better skills in needlework—hence the term “qiqiao” (乞巧)—so they may have a better hand at finding a husband. As seen in a handscroll drawn by Ding Guanpeng—a Qing dynasty court painter—women set up altars offering incense, fruit, wine, and snacks to Zhinü. Some of them huddled together, competing to be the best in threading needles under the moonlight.

During the Song and Yuan dynasties, people also threw grand celebrations for Qixi Festivals. According to The Tales of an Old Drunkard, a collection of stories from the thirteenth century, there were markets selling Qixi-related items like flowers, fruits, and fried pastries called qiaoguo (巧果) starting from the first day of the seventh month.

In Hong Kong, where the festival is mostly referred to as the Seven Sisters Festival (七姐誕; cat1 ze2 daan3), some people traditionally celebrated by heading to the Seven Sisters Temple in Peng Chau to worship the seven daughters of Tiandi. Besides fruits and flowers, they brought paper offerings called “seven sisters bowl” (七姐盆; cat1 ze2 pun4) and “seven sisters clothes” (七姐衣; cat1 ze2 ji1) for the gods to put on make-up and dress up with.

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How people celebrate Qixi Festival today

Today, the traditions of the Qixi Festival are often being replaced with candlelit dinners in fancy restaurants. In mainland China, designer brands busily pump out Qixi-themed clothes and accessories every year to appeal to boyfriends and girlfriends as the ultimate gift to show their affection. Qixi Festival is also the perfect day to tie the knot, with hundreds and thousands of lovebirds flocking to marriage registry offices.

As this phenomenon is not as popular in Hong Kong, couples opt for a trip to the Lover’s Rock in Wan Chai instead of churches and marriage registry offices. In hopes of a smooth-sailing relationship, lovers often visit the area on days other than the Qixi Festival as well.

If you’re interested in celebrating extravagantly as people did during the Song and Yuan dynasties, Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple is hosting the first-ever “Seven Sisters Festival and Temple Carnival Night.” Attend on the night of 4 August dressed in traditional Chinese outfits to enjoy workshops on handicrafts, blessing rituals, and more!

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A laidback grandma at heart, Gabriella loves to crochet, bake bread, and play Solitaire while listening to her 78-hour-long Spotify playlist. She enjoys all the simple things in life, but is also down to go crazy once or twice (or thrice) in a while.

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