Qi Xi Festival—commonly referred to as Chinese Valentine’s Day—happens on Aug. 28 this year (it takes place on the seventh day of the seventh month on the lunar calendar). The festival celebrates a nearly 2,000-year-old fairy tale (link in Chinese) originating from the Han Dynasty.
The story goes that Zhi Nu, a goddess renowned for her weaving skills, went to the mortal world and met a cow herder named Niu Lang. The two fell in love, got married, and had two children. But when Zhi Nu’s mother, the queen mother of heaven, found out about their union, she became upset and angry, taking Zhi Nu back to heaven.
Niu Lang was heartbroken. But an old cow that Niu Lang had once rescued revealed that he was actually a god injured in the mortal world and offered him his skin once he died. He told Niu Lang his leather could be used to make shoes that could fly him to heaven.
When the cow died, Niu Lang made an attempt to find Zhi Nu with their children, but the queen mother of heaven used her hair pin to create a river of stars that would become the Milky Way to separate the two lovers. Their cries touched the magpies so much that thousands of them formed a bridge for the couple to walk over the river. Eventually, the queen mother relented and agreed to let the couple meet one night out of every year on Qi Xi, which means the seventh night, which they do with the help of their magpie friends.
Qi Xi has since come to symbolize true love. In ancient times, girls would offer fruits and food to Zhi Nu on the night of the festival, praying for skillful hands like the goddess’s to weave with so they can find their ideal husbands. Children would also pick up wild flowers to hang on an ox’s horns in memory of the cow-god who sacrificed himself.
Festivals across greater China today celebrate a variety of different traditions in honor of Qi Xi. In China’s southeastern city Shaoxing (link in Chinese), girls hide in pumpkins farms, believing those who can hear the whispers of Niu Lang and Zhi Nu would find love soon. In Hunan province (link in Chinese), women fetch water from the mountains. Believing it to be holy, they wash their hair with so they can be blessed by Zhi Nu. Some even collect dew—symbolizing tears from the couple—in the early morning following Qi Xi, believing that drinking it would make them smarter. In Taiwan, people release floating lanterns (link in Chinese) into the sky to make wishes for love.
Confusingly, Qi Xi isn’t the only Valentine’s Day that Chinese people celebrate. They also celebrate love on Feb. 14 as well as the Lantern Festival (also sometimes called Chinese Valentine’s Day in English), which takes place over the Lunar New Year. But like the Western holiday, these days of love have become commercialized by hotels, chocolate companies, flowers vendors, and their ilk.