7 7: Qi Qiao

1814121Today is the 7th day of the 7th month in the Chinese lunar calendar, commonly known as 7 7, the Chinese Valentine’s, and women’s festival. The origins of 7 7 date all the way back to the 3rd century BC, and to the Nanyang civilisation in Henan, the cradle of ancient Chinese culture. Amongst many great achievements, the Han Dynasty saw the advancement of native Chinese astronomy, the silk industry from the breeding silk worms, growing mulberry leaves to weaving, and Nanyang was known for its fine stock of cattle. Like many ancient civilisations, the Chinese held the stars in great awe, they divided the sky into 28 constellations, anthropomorphising many in the naming process. So from the development of ancient Chinese industry, agriculture and astronomy, came this beautiful legend that inspired the festival.

There are many versions of the legend, a popular version is that once upon a time, a cowherd saw a goddess while she was bathing, the two fell in love and she settled on earth with him, he ploughed the fields while she wove cloth and they lived happily with their two children. When it came to light that she had not returned to heaven, the emperor and empress of heaven banned her from ever visiting the cowherd again. Magpies took pity on the lovers and on every 7th day of the 7th lunar month, they flew together forming a bridge linking the eastern and western galaxies, so that the lovers can reunite across the stars.

What the ancient Chinese referred to as the Cowherd, is now known as Altair, the brightest star in the Aquila Constellation, and what they referred to as the Weaver, is now known as Vega, the brightest star in the Lyra Constellation. The ancient Chinese observed that these two stars moved very close together on the 7th of the 7th.

Traditionally 7 7 was also known as 乞巧 “Qi Qiao”, it was a time when women made offerings to the gods and prayed to be granted love, and “feminine” crafts and skills such as weaving and clothes making.

In Shandong, offerings of fruit were made, it was believed that the appearance of spider’s webs on the offerings meant that the skills prayed for had been granted. Vegetable dumplings would be made by 7 girls, placing a coin, a needle, and date amongst the dumplings, anyone who finds the coin gains good luck, anyone who finds the needle gains great craft skills (and a sore mouth!), anyone who finds the date will have luck in love.

In Zhejiang, girls threaded needles under the moonlight (would take some skill indeed!) and caught spiders to put in boxes, hoping to find spider’s webs the next day. Others would slaughter a cockerel to keep it from announcing the dawn, so that the lovers would never again have to separate.

In Guangzhou, the home of clothes making, Qi Qiao traditions were particularly alive. Girls would make small craft objects from colour paper, reeds or strings and ropes, place grains and mung beans in water, when the shoots grow out, make offerings to the gods, with incense, under the stars, seven times, from three to five o’clock in the morning. They would hold needle treading competitions, the first one to thread seven needles in one go wins.

Qi Qiao had been somewhat forgotten in time, but in recent years revived as the Chinese Valentine’s festival, as many couples select this day to celebrate their love or tie the knot.

 


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