Let's see how much you know about 七夕情人節(Chinese Valentine’s Day)!




Chihsi: Chinese Valentine's Day

By Bernado Tuso
Photos by Sung Chih-hsiung

On the evening of August 2nd (the seventh day of the seventh month on the Chinese lunar calendar), look carefully at the sky and you will, weather permitting, see the Cowherd (a bright star in the constellation Aquila, west of the Milky Way) and the Weaving Maid (the star Vega, east of the Milky Way) appear closer together than at any other time of the year.

The Chinese believe these stars are lovers. A legend tells how the Weaving Maid, the seventh daughter of the Jade Emperor, fell in love with and married a cowherd. However, they were overindulgent in their love and forgot their farming and weaving duties, which angered the Jade Emperor. He exiled and separated them on opposite banks of the Silver River (Milky Way), allowing them to meet each other only once a year on Chihsi, or the night of the double seventh (seventh month and seventh day), on a bridge formed by magpies.

The Brash and the Fair

Another legend is more romantic. It holds that an orphaned cowherd was mistreated by his elder brother and sister-in-law, and that they gave him an old ox and chased him out. The cowherd worked hard, and after only a couple of years he owned a small farm and house. He was lonely, however, with only the company of that faithful old ox.

One day the ox suddenly opened its mouth and talked, telling the cowherd that the heavenly Weaving Maid and her sisters were going to bathe in the Silver River and that he should go there to rob the Weaving Maid of her clothes while she was in the water. In exchange for the return of her clothes, she would become his wife. Surprised, the cowherd willingly fol-lowed the ox's instruc-tions and hid himself in the reeds at the river-bank, waiting for the girls to bathe.

The girls did come as foretold. As they were splashing about and having fun, the cowherd rushed out of the reeds and grabbed the Weav-ing Maid's clothing. In panic, the sisters dashed to their clothes, hur-riedly put them on, and ran away. The Weaving Maid, deprived of her clothes, stood on the riverbank and tried to cover herself with her hair as best as possible. The cowherd told her that he would not return her clothes unless she promised to be his wife. After a little hesitation and with a mixture of shyness and eagerness, she agreed to his request and they married.

The Jade Emperor at long last learned of the elopement, and in anger he punished them as described in the first legend. If it rains on the night of the double seventh, the time the two lovers meet on the magpie bridge, women on earth used to lament that "our elder sister is crying again." The raindrops are considered the tears of the Weaving Maid.

To complete a ritual passage to adulthood at Tainan's Kailung Temple, a 16-year old must first crawl past and under the offering table for Chiniangma(up) and then circle and pass under a miniature seven-story pagoda.

To Love and Protect

The double seventh is also an important day for young people. Chiniangma, literally meaning "seven mothers," is the name of the Weaving Maid and her six elder sisters, whom the Chinese believe are protectors of children under 16. A custom begun in the Ching dynasty requires parents, when a child reaches one year of age, to use a red thread to tie old coins under the child's neck, a protective amulet from Chiniangma. In the past, some people have substituted a silver coin or even a gold medal for the old coin. The red thread is replaced with a new one on every double seventh until the child grows up.

A person is considered grown up when he or she reaches 16; and a rite to mark the occasion is performed on the double seventh--the birthday of Chiniangma. This is somewhat confusing, since Chiniangma is a unified name; some claim the birthday is the Weaving Maid's, and some assert it belongs to the oldest sister--one more debating topic for the mortals of China.

In Taiwan, this Chiniangma custom is most prevalent in the Tainan area; on the double seventh, people go to Kailung Temple, which is almost 200 years old, and make 16-year-olds perform the ritual passage to adulthood by crawling under the offering table and by circling and passing under, three times, a miniature seven-story pagoda made of bamboo and paper and held up high by their parents.

For the Chinese woman who craves to have a child, double seventh is the best day of the year to beg Chusheng Niangniang, the Goddess of Birth. Who is this merciful goddess? She could be the Weaving Maid or any of her sisters, or any other goddess. There is no single answer; anyway, all some Chinese women care about is a child in their arms.

Coins tied with a red thread and hung around a child's neck are used as a protective amulet in the tradition of Chiniangma.

To Woo or To Be Wooed

A girl will be more attractive to a suitor if she has talents of one kind or another in addition to being beautiful. In the old days of China, needlework was necessary as part of a girl's dowry. The Weaving Maid is also an excellent seamstress.

On the eve of the double seventh, as the old custom goes, love and reproduction falls. Inthe old days, the double seventh functioned as the Chinese womem's day.

So many things--of joy and tears, praise and lament, hope and yearning--fall on the double seventh. Ironically, the whole seventh lunar month, the Chinese believe, is the Ghost Month(from July 27 to August 25 this year on the Gregorian calendar), during which the gates of Hades open, allowing the sprits of the dead(or "good buddies," the Chinese prefer to call them) to roam the earth where the living reside. To avoid any trouble those spirits might make, the living try their best ot shun activities which can be postponed or done beforehand--no moving, no getting married, no shopopening, no project-starting, no swimming(lest you be dragged into the deep), no reckless driving(a good idea anytime), no surgery, and plainly "no nothing."

As Irony plays with life and love, so this time of taking care of the afterworld coincides with Chinese Valentine's Day. Confused? Just remember to take care of love and romance, too.




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