Why you should care
Because who isn’t a sucker for forbidden love?
On a lonesome stroll near a crystal blue pond, a cowherd stumbled upon the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on — a young, glowing fairy sent from heaven. Not surprisingly, the mere mortal fell head over heels as she slowly shed her silk gown for a quick bath in the glittering waters. To win her affection, he had a naughty trick up his sleeve: steal her clothes and never give them back. So began their tumultuous courtship.
So much for a sappy love story. We’re intimately familiar with the adulterous affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, the moonlight trysts of Antony and Cleopatra and even the troubled romance of Queen Bey and Jay Z. But long before these legendary couples hooked up, a more scandalous pair of star-crossed lovers fell head over heels. Meet Niu Lang and Zhi Nü, the original Romeo and Juliet.
The heartbreak is eternal, but so is the spark of love.
This tragic tale of love and loss is as old as time itself — born during the Han Dynasty and passed down from generation to generation. Few stories have withstood the test of 2,000-plus years or made such a lasting impact, but The Weaver Girl and the Cowherd (Zhi Nü and Niu Lang, respectively) was immortalized in China well before poor Romeo downed a vial of poison. The plot may sound familiar: Two passionate youths entangled in a desperate, forbidden love only to be cruelly torn apart. Zhi Nü is a maiden who weaves the clouds in the sky while Niu Lang is a lowly herdsman. But when Zhi Nü’s mother, the Goddess of Heaven, catches wind of their hanky-panky, she grows furious and vanquishes both to the opposite banks of the Celestial River, better known as the Milky Way. Once a year — during the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar year, or Qixi — black-and-white magpie birds form a magical bridge to allow the lovers to reunite, albeit briefly.
Although the folktale may not be well known in the West, “every Chinese person once knew the legend of Niu Lang and Zhi Nü,” says Haiyan Lee, professor of Chinese literature at Stanford University and author of Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950. No one knows the exact origins of the story, but most folklorists agree that unlike the dysfunctional and doomed love shared between Romeo and Juliet, the tale of Niu Lang and Zhi Nü is intended to inspire. Their romance is fleeting but never truly dies or ends in tragedy. “The heartbreak is eternal, but so is the spark of love,” says professor Xiao Fang, an expert on folklore at Beijing Normal University.
Their tale is imbued with hope but embodies a struggle between the competing cultural values of familial duty and unbridled passion. Their supernatural love used to be celebrated with fervor in towns across China for centuries — couples would get married on the lucky day of Qixi, single women would offer flowers and fruit to the heavens, and people would gaze at the starry night sky to follow the reunion of Niu Lang and Zhi Nü, said to represent the crossing of Vega and Altair, two of the brightest stars in the Milky Way. According to folklore, rain on the day of Qixi symbolizes the tears of Niu Lang and Zhi Nü flowing because the Goddess of Heaven wouldn’t allow the magpies to help them meet that particular year. Qixi even inspired similar love festivals in Japan, Korea and Vietnam.
Today, these ancient traditions are dying out in China. With the social upheaval of the 20th century and the pace of technological advance in the 21st century, ancient festivals like Qixi have fallen by the wayside. Most young people in China are more familiar with Saint Valentine’s Day on February 14 than they are with Qixi, says Xiao. Just like globalization brought Black Friday to Brazil, Valentine’s Day — an unlikely Western import — has taken hold in China too. But even as the tale of Niu Lang and Zhi Nü fades with time, their love is enshrined in legend, and in the stars. Just look up, and their love continues to shine bright in the dazzling night sky.