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Qixi Festival: Chinese Young Girls' Day
July 7th in lunar calendar is a Chinese traditional Day, Qixi, the Night of Sevens, or Qi Qiao, the seven skills. Nowadays, it is known as "Chinese Valentine's Day". Lovers celebrate their love on the day in the same way with western people on February 14th. As a matter of fact, it is a mistake in understanding and inheriting cultural heritage.
This festival was originated from the worship of ancient Chinese for the nature, especially stars. According to historical documents, ancient Chinese about three four thousand years ago observed two stars Altair and Vega, and named them Qian Niu (meaning a cowherd) and Zhi Nu (meaning a fairy who is pretty and weaves beautiful cloth). They also saw another two smaller ones near the bright and variable Qian Niu Star. Ancient people had believed that the natural observation derived from a world beyond, and thus produced a very beautiful and romantic legendary story:
Years and years ago, there was a poor cowherd, who only had an old cow as the company after his parents died. However, the cow had magic power. One day, it told the cowherd that a group of beautiful young fairies would bathe in the Green Lotus Pool nearby, and the one in red would be his wife. The cowherd followed the cow's words to hide the red clothes while they were playing in the pool. Eventually, the cowherd and the fairy fell in love with each other. They got married, lived happily, and had a boy and a girl. The cow was finally old to death. Before death, it told the couple to keep the hide, and they would fly into the sky wearing it. Finally, the Emperor of the Heaven knew about the couple, and ran into rage, because Zhi Nu was his grand-daughter, then a cowherd boy was never supposed to match with her. He sent soldiers to take Zhi Nu back. The husband hastily took their two children and wore the hide, flying into the sky to pursue after his wife. When they almost caught up with her, the Queen Mother used a gold hairpin to draw a line between them, and the line immediately turned into a large river, i.e. the Milky Way between Altair and Vega. As a result, the husband never passed the river. For hundreds of years, he could only watch his wife from afar while looking after their two children, and she wove rosy clouds on her loom on the other side days and nights. Eventually, the Emperor was moved by their real love, so permitted the whole family to reunit once a year on July 7th. (Ancient Chinese worship the date: the double sevens meant happiness in ancient time.) Since then, on every July 7th, innumerable magpies fly to the river and build a bridge for the most precious and romantic meeting. Therefore, there is a traditional activity on the Night of Sevens, i.e. lovers sit together in a quiet place, often under a grape or other vine plant trellis, to listen to those sweet whispers of love from the sky. And the match maker today is said to make a magpie bridge.
Young Girls' Day
Nowadays, to celebrate love becomes the fashionable and only meaningful activity on Qixi Day, and the Day got the name of "Chinese Valentine's Day" by westernization. However, it was actually called "Young Girls' Day", or "Festival to Plead for Skills". According to historical documents, the festival began in Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-221 A.D.), and was the most important day for young girls. In ancient time, unmarried young girls were supposed to be skilled at handy work, such as embroidery, and they did not have any freedom on marriage thing. Because Zhi Nu was deft and clever, and got real love, ancient young girls worshiped her. They sacrificed fine food and arts on Qixi evening to petition the fairy to help them as clever as her, and prayed on good marriage.
There are special food for the special day. The first most important one was Qiao Guo (clever cake), which was used for sacrifice. It is still popular in present days. Here is the recipe: use white sugar and oil to make sugar syrup, then add flour and sesame seeds to mix up, then flatten out. Make variable patterns with fruit jam or bean paste in it, then fry it to golden yellow. Another important food was "flower melon", i.e. clever young girls cut out different patterns on melons, i.e. melon carvings.
In different places of China, there are different customs for the Day, but generally and traditionally, there were sevral things necessary: needle and thread work; put a spider in a small box. If the spider produced dense web next day, the skill was gotten; grew bean or wheat seeds days before the Day, and threw the sprouts in bundles with colorful bands onto the water surface, to let them floating with little wax characters in the folk tale; worshiped Zhi Nu Star. Nowadays, all these traditions may have been disappearing, but it is said that Japanese and Korean still keep the custom of plead for skill.
Along the long history, people from different areas add different contents in this festival with respect imagination and ethical philosophy, but generally Qixi is a meaningful and romantic festival. Its origin and customs menifest a strong oriental cultural feeling. Hope that meaningful and beautiful traditions, and cultural heritages can be handed down from generation to generation.