When I was in China, Valentine's Day (like most western holidays) took on a slightly carnival air. I remember notes on pastel-colored stationary punctuated with floating hearts and cartoon characters. There was a lot of whispering and giggling in the classroom. It was a holiday my students were intrigued by but not necessarily accustomed to. This makes sense, as the Chinese celebration of love is celebrated in an entirely different month and with a lovely, ancient story.
The Chinese really know how to do ancient stories.
In late August, the Chinese celebrate the mythological meeting of a cowherd and a weaver girl in the QiXi Festival. The story goes something like this: Zhinu, a young fairy and the daughter of the Goddess of Heaven, ventured beyond boring, old heaven for some fun. She soon met a cowherd named Niulang and fell in love. Without telling her mother or returning home, Zhinu married Niulang, and the they had two children. The couple was very happy, Zhinu proving to be a loving wife and Niulang a devoted husband. Zhinu's mother, however, found out about the marriage and was furious that her daughter married a mere mortal. The Goddess of Heaven ordered her daughter back to heaven immediately and, by some accounts, forced her back to her duty weaving colorful clouds. Niulang was devastated. According to the myth, one day the cowherd's oxen began talking to him. One ox told him that if Niulang killed the ox and shrouded himself in the ox's hide, he could disguise himself and get into heaven to see his wife. Niulang did just that, and along with his children set off for heaven. The Goddess of Heaven heard of Niulang's journey, however, and became enraged. Taking out a hairpin, she scratched a wide river across the sky to separate the two lovers, forming the Milky Way between Altair and Vega. It is also known as the Silver River. Zhinu must sit on one side of the river, forlorn and desperate for her family, weaving in solitude. Niulang watches from the other side, caring for their children and missing his wife.
Once a year, however, the magpies take pity on the couple and form a bridge across the Silver River so the couple can unite. This happens on the 7th night of the 7th moon, and this is when the QiXi Festival takes place.
There are many traditions celebrated during this festival, especially among young girls who might go to the temple to pray for their own potential match or pray to Zhinu for wisdom. They pray to make good matches in marriage and for husbands who will be good and loving. They might offer fruit, flowers, tea or face powder.
The story goes that if it rains on this day, it is because there is crying in heaven.
I really miss Chinese festivals, when students brought me fruit or special treats. There was a real sweetness to it rather than such a sense of commercialism. I think of that today, on Valentine's Day, and my plan is to cook a lovely meal with my kids and husband, a little treat perhaps to end the day. I was thinking of all the things I've ever heard written about love, and the one that stands out to me most is this:
If I could tell my family what they mean to me in a few short words, Hesse's words would be it.
Happy Valentine's Day!