The Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day is Qi Qiao Jie: the seventh eve or Double Seventh Festival. Its name refers to the date of the festival dedicated to love, which falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. This date changes each year: this year, Qi Qiao Jie will be celebrated on 2 August.

The tradition of Qi Qiao Jie spans thousands of years. There are different versions of the legend behind the festival, but the main theme is the separation and reunion of lovers Niu Lang and Zhi Nu.

In one version of the tale, Niu Lang and Zhi Nu spent several happy years together following a prank played by Niu Lang.

Working as a cowherd, Niu Lang saw all seven daughters of the Goddess of Heaven bathing one night. After hiding one of their dresses, the sisters returned to heaven without the youngest of the group, leaving her on earth to marry the cowherd.

Two magical children were given to the couple, who lived happily until Zhi Nu’s mother noticed that her youngest daughter was not in Heaven. The Goddess of Heaven ordered Zhi Nu’s return, leaving the lovers apart and heartbroken.

Thanks to a magical cowhide, Niu Lang was able to fly up to Heaven to see his wife, but was blocked by the Goddess of Heaven. She used a hairpin to create a river of stars that separated the lovers. Seeing their unhappiness at being parted, however, the Goddess of Heaven relented slightly and allowed them one night a year when they may be together. This night, the seventh eve, is when Zhi Nu and Niu Lang are reunited by a bridge of magpies, which connects Heaven and Earth. The river of stars that the bridge crosses once a year is the Milky Way. The seven sisters who originally came down from Heaven to bathe are the reason that the festival is sometimes called the Seven Sisters Festival.

Another version of the tale has Niu Lang and Zhi Nu as two lonely fairies, living either side of the Milky Way. The Jade Emperor of Heaven brought the pair together, then watched as they fell too deeply in love to continue with their work. They were punished by the Jade Emperor of Heaven, who decided they would be allowed to meet only on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of each year. In the sky, Zhi Nu is represented by the star Vega, on the east of the Milky Way. To the west of the Milky Way, different versions of the legend describe the constellation Aquila or star Altair as being the lonely Niu Lang, separated from his true love.

Young girls celebrate the Double Seventh Festival as it is thought to bring them love. They also make offerings to Zhi Nu, a renowned weaver. Girls hope that their prayers and offerings of incense and fruit mean they will be blessed with Zhi Nu's needlecraft skills.

These offerings are more common than traditional Valentine gifts on Chinese Valentine’s Day. However, flowers and chocolates are given as love tokens by some, who celebrate the day in a similar way to the Western Valentine’s Day. Xiao Fang, a folklore professor at Beijing Normal University says that the Double Seventh Festival is becoming more popular as Chinese people are embracing the opportunity to have their own Valentine’s Day. It’s another day when they can celebrate their affection for their loved ones. February 14, or the Western Valentine’s Day, is also celebrated in China, so lovers get to enjoy the gifts and rituals twice!

Justin Chung