The second of two tales about the Chinese Weaver Goddess, Zhinu, the daughter of the master of Heaven, (the Jade Emperor). As the Weaver Goddess, she either weaves her father’s royal robes out of the clouds, or else weaves the clouds and the rainbows themselves (it seems to vary, depending on what you read). Her mother, the Celestial Queen Mother, created the Silver River (the Milky Way).
This is the story of Zhinu and her other mortal husband, Niulang.
The Weaver Maiden and the Cowherd
Niulang was a poor cowherd, with nothing in the world but an old, worndown Ox. Unbeknownst to Niulang, the Ox was a Celestial being, whom the gods exiled to Earth as punishment for… well, I don’t know what. On a day like any other day, as Niulang led his Ox to the fields, to his great surprise, the Ox turned and spoke to him!
“Let’s go down by the river,” the Ox said.
“Why?” said the Niulang — as soon as he got over his surprise at owning a talking Ox.
“You’ve been a good master. I want to repay you. Trust me,” the Ox said.
So down to the river they went. What the Ox knew — and Niulang didn’t — was that this particular bend of the river was a favorite bathing spot for the Jade Emperor’s seven daughters. As Niulang approached, he saw the sisters splashing in the water. He especially noticed the youngest one — Zhinu. The Ox noticed Niulang’s infatuated expression, and he helpfully pointed out the seven piles of clothing neatly stacked on shore.
“The robe the color of the sunset is Zhinu’s,” the Ox said.
So Niulang snuck to the shore as the sisters swam and splashed, and stole the robe that was the color of the setting sun. Eventually, the sisters finished their baths, scrambled to shore, put on their robes, and flew back up to the heavens. All except poor Zhinu.
As she searched frantically for her clothes, Niulang gave a whistle from where he and the Ox stood under the trees, and held out the robe. Zhinu shrieked and hid behind a bush.
“Give me that!” she shouted. But Niulang shook his head.
“Not until you agree to marry me,” he said.
What could she do? It gets chilly, huddled there wet with no clothes. Reluctantly, she agreed.
Personally, if I had been her, I probably would have flown back to heaven after getting my robe back — a promise made under duress is no promise at all — but Zhinu must not have seen it that way. Niulang was quite handsome, and a good man, and maybe the Ox put in a good word for him, who knows. But she did marry him, and in fact the two ended up living quite happily together. They even had two children — a boy and a girl.
But since Zhinu was down on Earth with her family, no one was weaving the clouds. The skies were bland; sunsets and sunrises were gray and colorless. Finally, Zhinu’s parents, the Jade Emperor and the Celestial Mother, declared that Zhinu must come home, and sent their emissaries to make sure that she did. So Zhinu reluctantly went back to heaven, leaving her husband and children behind.
Niulang was heartbroken, but the Ox came to his aid again.
“Kill me, and wrap yourself in my hide, and you can fly up to heaven,” the Ox said.
At first Niulang was reluctant to kill his faithful Ox, but the Ox insisted (after all, as a Celestial being, maybe it couldn’t really die…). So Niulang did as the Ox suggested, and wrapped himself and the children in the hide. Whoosh! Up to heaven they flew.
But the Celestial Mother saw them coming, and before they could reach Zhinu sitting at her loom, the Celestial Mother pulled out her hairpin and rent apart the space between the stars, creating the great Silver River — the Milky Way — which forever separates Zhinu and Niulang.
But the cries and lamentations from Zhinu, Niulang, and their children were heartbreaking to hear. Zhinu’s parents relented — a little. Enough to let the family meet briefly, once a year, on the seventh night of the seventh month. On that night — if the weather is clear — all the magpies on Earth fly up and form a bridge across the Silver River, so Zhinu can cross and reunite with her family.
The seventh day of the seventh month is celebrated in China as the Qixi Festival. It’s set according to the Chinese lunar calendar, so the date varies (by the Gregorian calendar) from year to year. The Japan the festival is known as Tanabata, and has the same story attached: the Weaver Maiden is the goddess Orihime, and the Cowherd is Hikoboshi. The Japanese versions of the story that I’ve found are less elaborate, with no seven sisters and no magic ox. Orihime simply sees Hikobishi one day as he saunters by (I think he’s herding celestial oxen), and the two fall in love and run away together. And so on. I assume that the Japanese version derives from an earlier and simpler version of the Chinese folktale. The story is known in other parts of Asia as well, including Korea, Southeast Asia, and Sri Lanka.
The detail about the magpies only forming the bridge if the weather is clear seems to be Japanese. Or at least I didn’t see it in any of the Chinese versions that I read.
Zhinu is associated with the star Vega, and Niulang with the star Altair, two of the three stars (along with Deneb) that form the Summer Triangle. I think two of the other stars near Altair (which is in the constellation Aquila) are supposed to be Niulang’s two children: Alshain (β Aquilae) and Tarazed (γ Aquilae).
Lafcadio Hearn gives a short version of the story (he calls the Weaver Maiden Tanabata-tsume) in the title article of his collection The Romance of the Milky Way, and Other Studies & Stories. He also gives a lovely alternative version, where the two lovers are an earthly couple who sat together every night and watched the moon. The wife dies at the age of ninety-nine, and her spirit rides up to heaven on a magpie, to become a star. Her husband, left alone on earth (at the age of 109!), mourns her every night. Finally, he too dies, and his spirit rides up to heaven on a crow. But his allotted space star-space is on the other side of the River of Heaven. They can’t cross to each other because there is no bridge, and the Master of Heaven bathes every day in the River of Heaven. Except on (you guessed it) the seventh day of the seventh month, when He goes to hear the preaching of Buddha’s law. On that day, the magpies and the crows form a bridge, so the loving couple can reunite.
According to Wilt Idema (in Filial Piety and Its Divine Rewards), there are versions of the Dong Yong story where Dong Yong’s son (said to be Dong Zhongshu, a historical person with a legendary reputation) goes in search of his mother, Zhinu. He finds her bathing in a river, and meets her by stealing her clothes. Which is kinda weird….
- de Las Casas, Dianne. “The Cowherd and the Weaving Maiden, A Tale from China,” Kamishibai Story Theater: The Art of Picture Telling. 2006.
- Fraser, Hugh (“Bertie”).“The Cowherd and The Weaving Maid,” Storynory
- Hearn, Lafcadio. The Romance of the Milky Way, and Other Studies & Stories, 1905.
- Idema, Wilt L. Filial Piety and Its Divine Rewards, Hackett Publishing, 2009.
- Olcott, William Tyler. Star lore of all ages; a collection of myths, legends, and facts concerning the constellations of the Northern Hemisphere, p. 394. 1911. Brief mention of the Japanese version, as well as a similar Swedish story.
- Ryan, Karl. “Chinese Valentine’s Day: Not the V-Day You Know and Love (or Hate!),” ChinesePod: The Official Blog.
- Unknown, “The Cowherd and the Girl Weaver,” China Fact Tours.
- Unknown. “Qu Xi,” World Heritage Encyclopedia.
The Moon of the Milky Way, from 100 Aspects of the Moon, Yoshitoshi. Source: Wikimedia
The reunion of Zhinu and Niulang, artwork in the Long Corridor of the Summer Palace, Beijing. Photo by shizhao. Source: Wikimedia
Wide-field view of the Summer Triangle, NASA/ESA (A. Fujii). Source: Wikimedia