Legend of The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl

In the previous article on Qi Xi Festival, the Chinese Valentine’s Day, we mentioned only briefly about its origin – a Chinese folklore or fairytale about 2 star-crossed lovers in ancient China. It also provides a romantic explanation on the formation of the Milky Way. Here is the story of ‘Cowherd and the Weaver Girl’ in full.

Cowherd and the Weaver Girl (牛郎与织女 ; niú láng yú zhī nǚ)

There are ‘Four Classic Chinese Folklore’ (中国四大传说 ; zhōng guó sì dà chuán shuō) of the ancient Chinese mythological history.

  1. Cowherd and the Weaver Girl (牛郎与织女 ; niú láng yú zhī nǚ)
  2. Lady Meng Jiang’s Bitter Weeping (孟姜女哭长城 ; mèng jiāng nǚ kū cháng chéng)
  3. Butterfly Lovers (梁山伯与祝英台 ; liáng shān bó yǔ zhù yīng tái)
  4. Legend of Lady White Snake(白蛇传 ; bái shé zhuàn)

(We will be posting features of the other 3 Folklore in the near future!)

While all four are great classics of romantic love stories, only ‘Cowherd and the Weaver Girl’ became commemorated as a yearly festival, the Qi Xi Festival (七夕節 ; qī xī jié), falling on the 7th day of the 7th month of the Chinese (Lunar) Calendar.

Cowherd Star and Weaving Girl Star (Altair and Vega respectively)

This tale, which is at least 6th century BC old, starts its story in the skies.

The Weaver Girl Star (织女星 ; zhī nǚ xīng), referring to the Vega star and the Cowherd Star (牵牛星 ; qiān niú xīng), referring to the Altair Star, fell deeply in love with each other. However, in the Heavens of the Chinese mythological world, it is against the heavenly rules for these stars or deities to have romantic relationships. Moreover, the Weaver Girl Star is the granddaughter of the Heavenly Empress.

When word of their forbidden love reached the ears of the powerful Heavenly Empress, she became furious and sent the Cowherd Star down to Earth as a mortal. The Weaver Girl was punished to weave non-stop in the sky. In the legend, clouds in the skies were weaved by the Weaver Girl with magical silk and weaving machine. Different colours were weaved according to different times of the day and season.

Heavenly Empress

Heavenly Empress

On a day, a group of fairies requested the Heavenly Empress for permission to descend to the mortal world, to Bi Lian Lake (碧莲池 ; bì lián chí), a lake which could beautify and whiten skin. The Empress was in a good mood and agreed. The fairy girls taking pity on the Weaver Girl for working so hard on her weaving, further requested for her to join them on the trip. Heavenly Empress thought for quite a while, and gave in eventually.

On earth, when the Cowherd Star descended to the mortal world, he was reborn into a farming family and named as Cowherd / Cow Boy (牛郎 ; niú láng). After his parents passed away, he stayed with his brother and sister-in-law, who treated him very badly. Eventually he was chased out of their home with only an old Ox and a broken cart.

The Cowherd and the old Ox depended on each other and lived through hardship together. They plowed and worked hard and in a couple of years, managed to build a small house and make ends meet.

Cowherd and his Ox

Cowherd and his Ox

Unknown to the Cowherd, the old Ox was originally the Golden Ox Star (金牛星 ; Jīn niú xīng). One day, the Ox suddenly spoke, to the Cowherd’s surprise. The Ox said to him, “Go to Bi Lian Lake today. You will find the dresses of some fairies by the rocks, while they are bathing in the lake. Take the red dress and the fairy will become your wife.”

Shocked and thrilled, the cowherd took the advice, for he has been alone and yearns a companion. He hid near the lake and sure enough, true to the Ox’s words, fairies flew down from the sky. The fairies placed their dresses by the rock and stepped into the Lake.

Seeing his chance, the Cowherd ran out and grabbed the red dress. The fairies were frantic to find there was man around. Wearing their dresses in haste, they flew back to heaven. Only one fairy was left in the lake, for the Cowherd was holding onto her dress. She was none other than the Weaver Girl Star.

The Cowherd walked forward and asked the Weaver Girl to be his wife, in exchange for her dress. At this moment, the Weaver Girl recognized him as the Cowherd Star whom she was still deeply in love with. Shyly but happily, she accepted his marriage request and became his wife.

Life on earth for them was wonderful. They bore a son and a daughter and lived happily as a family.

However, their joy and peace did not last forever. For when the Heavenly Empress knew of this matter, she stormed in rage! She immediately deployed heaven guards and soldiers to bring the Weaver Girl back for punishment.

Back on earth, the Cowherd ran back home in the midst of his plowing day with sad news that the old Ox has passed away. He told the Weaving Girl that the Ox spoke before it died. It asked him to keep his ox hide well. One day, he will be able to cape the hide and fly into the sky. Upon hearing this, the Weaving Girl realized that the Ox was once the Golden Ox Star, who was also punished to the mortal world when he tried to speak in favour for the Cowherd Star.

Sadly, they peeled the hide and gave the Ox a burial.

Heavenly Guards and Soldiers

Heavenly Guards and Soldiers

Right at this moment, the heaven guards and soldiers came! In an instance, they grabbed the Weaving Girl and flew off. Sad as she may be, the Weaving Girl could do nothing about it. Helplessly, she flew in the skies with the guards to the heavens.

“Weaver Girl, wait for me!” The Weaver Girl heard the Cowherd’s voice. Looking back, she saw him flying behind them, wearing the magical Ox hide with each hand holding a basket and their 2 children in them.

The gap between them became closer and closer. Soon, Weaver Girl could see the adoring faces of her children and hear their cries for her. Just when they were almost reunited, the Heavenly Empress appeared and with a wave of her hairpin, created a galaxy (the Milky Way) between them, forming an impenetrable barrier.

The couple and their children gazed helplessly across the Milky Way at each other. Emotionally torn, they cried and cried. Fairies and gods who heard their cries all felt pity for them and pained that the loving family had to be separated. Soon, even the Empress soften her heart. She allowed the family (including the 2 children) to stay in the sky and remain as stars, permitting them to meet once every year on the 7th day of the 7th month.

Magpie Bridge

Magpie Bridge

On that day of the year, countless magpies (喜鹊 ; xǐ què) would form a bridge to reunite the Cowherd, the Weaving Girl and their two children in the skies.

This day is then commemorated by Chinese people as Qi Xi Festival (read our previous article here).

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24 Responses to “Legend of The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl”

  1. Frances Says:

    Dear Sir/Madam,

    I am writing on behalf of an educational publisher in Hong Kong. We would like to ask whether you would be able to grant us permission to reproduce a picture of the cowherd and the weaver girl from your website (URL: http://www.ilearn-culture.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/cowherdandweavinggirl.jpg).

    The picture will be reproduced for educational purposes, in a junior secondary English series. It may also be reproduced in print and non-print formats, for example, photocopiable worksheets, electronic books, website, as additional teaching aids for teachers’ free use.

    Could you please get in touch with we so that we can discuss the matter in details? I look forward to hearing from you soon.

    Yours sincerely,
    Frances Tsim

  2. PaxMano33 Says:

    cool story. i always wondered what that picture with the magpies and the family was all about; ive seen it before but was never given any context.

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