From Astrology to Festivity: A Southeast Asian Valentine’s Day

He sighed, setting down the thick bamboo pole previously balanced on his shoulders, holding two heavy pails on either end. Another day’s work of herding cows and gathering supplies had caused every joint to ache with fatigue. But his eyes were cast upward, where the first flecks of starlight gently dappled a darkening canvas, and any pains ebbed away with thoughts of the night’s promise.  

Tonight, they would meet again. 

This is the tale of two star-crossed lovers. 

It begins eons and eons ago, in the mortal realm, where a young cowherd, Niulang (牛郎), has a chance encounter with Zhinu(织女), a goddess infamous in the heavens for her beauty and weaving skill. The two fall in love at first sight, and continue to live in the mortal world, hoping to live peacefully as humans… but their happiness is short lived. For a mere mortal who dared to fall in love with a deity—and vice versa—this was a romance forbidden by the heavens, not to mention it led Zhinu to neglect her duties as the heavens’ weavergirl whilst in the mortal world. When the Empress of Heaven discovers their illicit relationship, she furiously slashes the sky with her silver hairpin, a powerful blow that opens up a raging river and indefinitely separates the two lovers. Fortunately, as the Emperor of Heaven watches their sorrowful fate unfold, he grows sympathetic, and sends all his magpies to form a bridge across the river so that the two may reunite, just for one night. And so, once a year, on the seventh night of the seventh month (of the lunar calendar), Niulang and Zhinu are allowed to meet.

Thus the Summer Triangle constellation (a giant triangle in the sky composed of the three distinctly bright stars) came to be, where the star Altair represents Niulang, with his two children living in the mortal world, and his beloved Niulang is the star we know as Vega. Otherwise separated by the Milky Way that is the Empress’s river, the two stars align in closest proximity on the day they meet. 

From Astrology to Festivity: A Southeast Asian Valentine's Day

[Image Source: Astro Bob]

Today, this very day is celebrated as the Qixi Festival  (七夕), meaning “Seventh Night”, and is also known as the “Chinese Valentine’s Day”. The story itself is well-known, and my recitation is but one of countless variations. Regardless of details, though, what I love about the story is how it exemplifies a legend’s evolution into a joyous festivity for families, reminding us to treasure the precious time we have with our loved ones, and at the same time creating a cultural bond that draws from a shared sentimentality for a legend that will continue preserving tradition for generations ahead. 

Having grown up with a Chinese background, I knew of both the Qixi Festival’s myth and festivities. But it was only upon researching further that I discovered that the Chinese myth had inspired Japan and Korea to adopt their own cultural equivalents of the holiday, named Tanabata, or Star Festival, and Chilseok (칠석, the Korean translation of seventh night) respectively. There are even variations across other Southeast Asian countries like Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Thailand. It was so interesting to see that despite all rooting from a single legend, each culture takes their own spin on the story’s interpretation and its celebration. 

Japan’s Star Festival focuses less on the romantic aspect of the holiday and celebrates in a more family-oriented fashion. Though each city or prefecture may host their own unique events, it is common for festivals to be held outdoors. The streets are often bursting with colour and decorations not limited to streamers, lanterns, and of course, the countless patterns from vibrant yukata, a lighter kimono worn during the summer. People may try their luck at game booths, taste-test the snack stalls, or make a wish for good health, grades, or happiness on special wishing paper, tanzaku, to later be hung on tall bamboo stalks. “Much in the way that bamboo grow straight and tall, it was also believed that deities could come down and drive away evil spirits.”

From Astrology to Festivity: A Southeast Asian Valentine's Day

[Image Source: Universe Today]

Korea’s Chilseok is heavily tied to Buddhism, and the legend behind the cowherd and weavergirl contains many overlaps with people’s faith in Bukdu Chilseong, or the Big Dipper (read more here). Like the Star Festival, Chilseok is prime time for making wishes, but additionally, Koreans like to take baths for good health and enjoy wheat-based dishes such as noodles and cakes. One example of this is the miljeonbyeong:

From Astrology to Festivity: A Southeast Asian Valentine's Day

[Image Source: 10000 Recipe]

But even within different Chinese regions, there are a variety of ways to celebrate: from Hunan’s holy water collection, to Jinan’s matchmaking event, to Chinese Taipei’s lantern-lighting (which happens during all their romantic holidays, most commonly the Lantern Festival): 

From Astrology to Festivity: A Southeast Asian Valentine's Day

[Image Source: Chinaplus]

As for more common Chinese celebrations, this may involve traditional dressing in Han dynasty robes, or the preparation of food offerings for Zhinu, so she may bless them and allow them to find their ideal partners. One of the sweet treats that Chinese people enjoy are these simple milk bread desserts, complete with floral decoration and characters for good fortune:

From Astrology to Festivity: A Southeast Asian Valentine's Day

[Image Source:  Xiachufang]

Holding onto the value of tradition and doing this through storytelling allows retention of culture down the bloodline. While many fear that our “culturally homogenizing” world is eroding individual cultures to the point where we may one day forget and lose our heritage, I believe that instead of neglect, we are learning to build upon existing traditions — not for better or for worse, but in suitability for the similarly transforming world. People are increasingly integrating tradition with modernity to create a beautiful mixture of old and new.  A perfect example of this is Taiwan’s experimentation with light technology and environmentally friendly material to enhance the visual experience and sustainability of its lanterns. Although this means traditional lantern-making may begin to phase out, this does not necessarily subtract from the essence of the festival, or its value to the people. After all, it is one’s sentiment that will always remain. And with a love-themed, heartstring-tugging holiday like Qixi, there is no doubt about it. 

This year, Qixi will be held on August 17 of the Gregorian calendar, so why not grab your friends and family (or significant other) and plan a star-gazing session, and maybe even trying out some traditional recipes while you’re at it?


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