The love story between the stars of Altair and Vega located on the two sides of the Milky Way is one of the oldest Chinese fairy tales.
A Forbidden Love between Two Stars
As the legend goes, in the beginning, there was no Milky Way in the sky and the stars could easily meet each other whenever they pleased.
Vega is said to be the 7th daughter of Celestial Mother Wang according to Chinese mythology and falls in love with Altair. The two began dating regularly.
When Celestial Mother noticed the love between the two stars, she was very upset because the cool immortals are not supposed to be romantically involved with each other like irrational mortals.
The couple was disciplined for breaching celestial rules of non-emotional attachment. Yet the Altair refused to abandon his love for the 7th Fairy.
Consequently, he was sentenced to life in the mortal world.
Since then, the 7th Fairy left alone in heaven missed her lover on earth day and night.
Altair found himself incarnated as a cowherd in the land called China. However his memory about his past life in heaven was still vivid, so was his love for Vega.
One day, the cow started talking to him. “You know cowherd boy, the fairies will go to a public bathroom in Yaochi tomorrow and if you can take 7th Fairy’s clothes away, she will remain on earth.”
Apparently, that heaven is still not a perfect paradise. For one thing, the sanitary facilities there do not seem to meet the demand, so from time to time, the fairies had to go to a pond on earth for a bath.
When the next day 7th Fairy washed in Yaochi, Cowherd successfully stole her clothes which resulted in her being unable to fly back to the sky.
7th Fairy didn’t want to leave cowherd either and readily agreed to stay in the mortal world.
In Chinese mythology, bad matchmakers are usually old women while good matchmakers are normally old men (such as Moon the Elderly 月老). So the couple invited the spirit of an ageing tree to conduct a wedding for them.
After the wedding in the wilderness, Cowderd led 7th Fairy to his humble house and introduced her to meet the cow.
The fairy quickly settled into a new life as the wife of a Chinese peasant.
While Cowherd laboured in the farmland with the cow, 7th Fairy worked on the weaving loom at home.
They had each other and had love. Life was good.
Soon they had two kids, one girl and one boy. And life couldn’t be better.
7th Fairy had spent seven years on earth, which is equivalent to seven days in the heaven she belongs, and that was a time long enough for her absence to be noticed by the celestial authority.
So after seven years, their marriage faced a big challenge. The cosmic police had tracked down the illegal space traveller and escorted her back to her own world.
Cowherd carried two kids on his shoulder with a bamboo pole and chased after his wife to the sky.
Evidently, the cowherd possessed the quality of a marathon champion and quickly narrowed the gap between himself and 7th Fairy.
Celestial Mother Wang had been waiting for her daughter at the Gate of Southern Sky. Seeing Cowherd was about to catch up with his wife, she pulled a silver pin from her hair and drew a dividing line between the pair, immediately a Silver River, also known as Milky Way, materialised, that effectively separated 7th Fairy and her family.
Since then, the family has been torn apart by the giant Milky Way, Vega and Altair can only view each other from a far distance.
The tragic love between a mortal and an immortal has moved heavens and earth and many beings in between. A public petition pleading to pardon the couple accused of violating the cosmic migration law and anti-interspecies-marriage regulation was submitted to celestial authority.
Under public pressure, a family visit once a year on the 7th night of the 7th month was granted.
Since then Chinese magpies have formed an army of volunteers annually, using their body to bridge the Milky Way and allow the family to meet. Some people even claimed they eavesdropped on the love exchanges between the couple, and the ear-witnesses include famous figures like Emperor Tang Ming Huang (唐明皇) and Lady Yang (杨贵妃). Later Chinese poet Bai Juyi (白居易) wrote a poem “Song of Lasting Sorrow” (长恨歌), in which he described how on the 7th night in lunar July the royal couple followed the touching example of the pair on the magpie bridge above and made their very own love-vow.
Since the legend spread in the land of the Middle Kingdom 2,000 years ago, magpies have been regarded in Chinese tradition as the messengers for the coming romance and marriage.
On the family reunion night, 7th Fairy would present a roll of silk fabric she produced for Cowherd to make clothes for himself and their kids.
She works every day on her weaving loom as she needs to provide a roll of silk fabric to her family every night.
But wait, isn’t the family just allowed to meet once a year?
That’s right, but remember the relativity of time, a concept Chinese have entertained since thousands of years ago – ancient Chinese believed each world has its unique time dimension, and one year on Earth could be equivalent to just one day in particular heaven where 7th Fairly dwells.
(Artists for the paintings: Yao Bai (姚柏), Mo Lang (墨浪 1910-1962) plus.
Qixi, from Celebrating Female Talent to Honouring A Forbidden Love
Initially, Qixi (七夕), meaning the 7th night in the 7th month, was a Maiden Festival (女儿节) and Lady’s Arts Day (乞巧节), when girls and young women would invite 7th Fairy to teach them skills in fashion design, dressmaking and gourmet cooking.
Later, the love story between Her Ladyship and her humble cowherd husband became the central theme of the night.
As tradition goes, on that night, young ladies would send off paper boats loaded with candles and wish notes in waterways, hoping the candles will bring their wishes to life.
The sky 2,000 years ago, depicted by ancient Chinese: Altair and Vega at the two sides of the Milky Way. The stars above the legendary lovers include Mr Thunder, Madam Wind and Uncle Lightning.
A mural in a Han Dynasty (206BC-221 AD) tomb in Shaanxi Province, unearthed in 2009
A crop art in China’s rice field: Loving couple Cowherd and 7th Fairy
The scene of a loving couple’s reunion painted by drone in the night sky of Changsha in Hunan province on August 16
In recent decades, Qixi has been promoted by Chinese media as China’s answer to St. Valentine’s Day, despite this is not a festival about romance but family, not about how to find the right person to marry (they didn’t obviously) but how to keep marriage work and be faithful to each other.
Here is a Chinese verse that praises the annual reunion between a mortal and an immortal:
Looking into the night sky on the seventh of July,
Where lovers unite on a bridge made of magpies.
Here is another touching Chinese poem on the love tragedy of two stars:
Wish all who love each other can tie the marriage knot, wish all married couple can keep their promise to each other, and wish all those who want to become immortal don’t tragically fall in love with a mortal.
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