Seven Maidens’ Festival



The Seven Maidens’ Festival (Qi Qiao Jie, 乞巧节), also known as Qixi (Seventh Night) Festival or Chinese Valentine’s Day, falls on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar.1 The festival has its origins in the mythological love story between a cowherd and a weaving lady (牛郎织女).2 The cowherd and weaving lady are two out of 28 astronomical segments, otherwise known as celestial spheres or equatorial divisions (lunar mansions), which ancient Chinese had mapped out based on the movement of the circumpolar stars around the pole star. The ninth lunar mansion, Chien Niu (牵牛) or Cowherd (Altair or Vega), and the 10th lunar mansion, Chih Nu (织女) or Weaving Lady (Acuilae or Lyrae), are located close to each other. This led to the many love stories related to the festival.3

Legends
There are many variations to the story of the cowherd and the weaving lady. One version is about the marriage between the cowherd and the weaving girl. The latter is a descendant of the King of Heaven, who exacted a large dowry from the cowherd. The cowherd then took a loan from the king but was unable to repay it. As punishment, the couple was separated – the cowherd to the west and the Weaving girl to the east of the Milky Way. They were allowed to meet only once a year on the seventh night of the seventh lunar month.4


Another story revolves around an immortal named Ch’eng Wu-Ting (成武丁) who lived on earth among humans. One day, Ch’eng informed his brother that he and all other immortals would be summoned back to the heavens on the seventh day of the seventh month, when the weaving lady traverses the Milky Way to meet the cowherd during their temporary reunion. Ch’eng also told his brother that he would meet him again in three years’ time. The very next day, Ch’eng had vanished without a trace.5

The best loved version is probably the one which tells of a goddess who was responsible for weaving clothes for the gods, although there are also variations to this story.6 The goddess, together with her six sisters, descended to earth to bathe in a stream one day. At the banks was a cowherd tending to a magic cow. The cow advised the cowherd to steal the clothes of the seventh goddess, who would then be obliged to marry him, and he would in turn gain immortality. The cowherd did as told and the goddess married him. As a result, the goddess neglected her weaving duties and was summoned back to the heavens. The cowherd grieved hard, and the magic cow took pity on him. The cow then sacrificed itself so that the cowherd may use its hide to ascend to the heavens to meet the goddess. The reunion angered the gods, who then turned the lovers into stars, separated by the Milky Way. Greatly moved and sympathetic to their plight, the God of Heaven permitted the lovers to meet once a year on the seventh night of the seventh moon. On this day, crows and magpies would form a bridge with their wings and bodies to enable the goddess to cross the Milky Way for the annual reunion.7

Celebrations
Different districts in China emphasise different rites and rituals during the Seven Maidens’ Festival. Celebrations will find single girls praying for a good husband and a happy marriage. In some parts of China, Qi Jie Hui (七姐会), or Seven Sisters’ Associations, are formed to compete with one another to put up the best “shrines” for the star-crossed lovers. Other rituals include the practice of airing clothing, and the needle-threading and spider web contests.8

Airing clothes
During the Han period (140–88 BCE), Emperor Wu built a special terrace for the queen to air her clothes on the seventh day of the seventh month. The practice was subsequently adopted by the local people who aired not only clothes on that day, but also canonical books to fumigate them from insects.9

Spider web contest
The spider web competition was started by Emperor Tang Ming Huang of the Tang Dynasty and his favourite courtesan, Yang Gui Fei. The contest required courtesans to capture spiders and place them in golden boxes overnight. The winner was the one with the largest amount of web spun by the captured spiders in the box.10

Needle-threading competition
The needle-threading competition, or chi chiao (乞巧), was also initiated by Emperor Tang. Here, courtesans attempted to pull a five-coloured thread through a nine-eyed needle under the illumination of moonlight (以九孔针五色线向月穿之). After the winners were declared, there would be feasting and celebrations until dawn. The commoners modified the competition format by using a seven-eyed needle instead.11

Seven Sisters
The Cantonese have a unique practice where young girls, preferably seven of them, gather around a shrine of fruits and vegetables, enter into a trance and communicate with the Seven Sisters.12 

Celebrations in Singapore
In Singapore, the Seven Maidens’ Festival was popularly celebrated in the 1920s, ’30s, ’50s and ’60s.13 Chinatown would be awashed in lights put up by the Seven Sisters’ Associations. These associations, comprising unmarried women (ma-jie), would compete to put up colourful paper shrine offerings to the mythical star-crossed lovers. The festival was of special significance to single females, who would pray for a good husband and a happy marriage.14 Another tradition of the Cantonese was to collect water and invoke the weaving maiden and her divine sisters to transform the water into medicine that could be used to cure sores or abscesses.15 During the festivities, the Seven Sisters’ Associations would also showcase their handicrafts such as clothing and shoes themed around the seven sisters.16

Few people celebrate the Seven Maidens’ Festival today.17 In 1991 and 1997, the  Singapore Futsing Association organised events that centred on romance during this Chinese Valentine’s Day. Married couples were invited to celebrate the occasion.18



Author

Bonny Tan




References
 
1. Love across the milky way. (1991, August 15). The Straits Times, p. 2; 《今天是“乞巧节” 》. (1983, August 15). 《联合早报》[Lianhe Zaobao], p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Wong, C. S. (1987). An illustrated cycle of Chinese festivities in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: Jack Chia-MPH, pp. 153–159. (Call no.: RSING 398.33 WON) 
3. Wong, C. S. (1987). An illustrated cycle of Chinese festivities in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: Jack Chia-MPH, p. 153. (Call no.: RSING 398.33 WON)
4. Wong, C. S. (1987). An illustrated cycle of Chinese festivities in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: Jack Chia-MPH, p. 153. (Call no.: RSING 398.33 WON) 
5. Wong, C. S. (1987). An illustrated cycle of Chinese festivities in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: Jack Chia-MPH, p. 154. (Call no.: RSING 398.33 WON) 
6. Wong, C. S. (1948, August 15). Immortal love story. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations. (2012). 《乞巧节》. Retrieved 2016, November 23 from Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations website: http://www.sfcca.sg/node/57
7. Wong, C. S. (1948, August 15). Immortal love story. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Wong, C. S. (1987). An illustrated cycle of Chinese festivities in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: Jack Chia-MPH, pp. 154–156. (Call no.: RSING 398.33 WON) 
9. Wong, C. S. (1987). An illustrated cycle of Chinese festivities in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: Jack Chia-MPH, p. 155. (Call no.: RSING 398.33 WON) 
10. Wong, C. S. (1987). An illustrated cycle of Chinese festivities in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: Jack Chia-MPH, p. 155. (Call no.: RSING 398.33 WON) 
11. Wong, C. S. (1987). An illustrated cycle of Chinese festivities in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: Jack Chia-MPH, p. 155. (Call no.: RSING 398.33 WON) 
12. Wong, C. S. (1987). An illustrated cycle of Chinese festivities in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: Jack Chia-MPH, p. 154. (Call no.: RSING 398.33 WON) 
13. 区如柏. (1990, August 25). 《牛郎织女·鹊桥相会》. 《联合早报》[Lianhe Zaobao], p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations. (2012). 《乞巧节》. Retrieved 2016, November 23 from Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations website: http://www.sfcca.sg/node/57
14. Legendary lovers who have faded from the local scene. (1989, October 16). The Straits Times. p. 15; “Seven-sister water” was collected at midnight. (1938, August 2). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. “Seven-sister water” was collected at midnight. (1938, August 2). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. 区如柏. (1990, August 25). 《牛郎织女·鹊桥相会》. 《联合早报》[Lianhe Zaobao], p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. 商余. (1983, August 15). 《今天是“乞巧节》. 《联合早报》[Lianhe Zaobao], p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18.《福清会馆举行乞巧节庆祝会邀印族夫妇参与》. (1991, August 12). 《联合早报》[Lianhe Zaobao], p. 5; 《百对各族新婚夫妇 福清会馆礼堂 举行乞巧节联欢会》. (1997, July 27). 《联合晚报》[Lianhe Wanbao], p. 15; Chinese valentine’s party. (1991, August 15). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 1997 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Legends--China
Festivals--China
People and communities>>Customs>>Festivities
Ethnic festivals
Ethnic Communities>>Festivals and Celebrations