Odd Holiday: Chinese Valentine’s Day

August 9, 2013

It’s almost August 13: Have you bought your Magpie Festival face powder yet?

Chinese Valentine's DayThe Western holiday of Valentine’s Day has its roots in a martyred Catholic priest who performed marriages when they were illegal. It also incorporates elements of Roman mythology, particularly Cupid, the Roman god of love.

China operates from different historical and mythological traditions, so it celebrates Chinese Valentine’s Day in a completely different way and at a completely different time. Instead of February 14, China has the Qixi Festival, or the Magpie Festival, celebrated in the summer, and this year it’s on August 13.

It’s an important holiday, especially for young and single women. It’s rooted in a 2,000-year-old Chinese legend involving star-crossed lovers. Zhinü, the seventh daughter of the Queen of Heaven, escapes the workshop where she’s forced to sew clouds all day. She then meets and falls in love with Niulang, a mortal, and a humble cow herder. They marry and have two children, but once the Queen of Heaven finds out, she orders Zhinü to return to her cloud-sewing station. Heartbroken, Niulang follows her to the heavens, Infuriated, the Queen digs a trench in the sky to separate Zhinü and Niulang permanently. However, once a year all the world’s magpies fly into the sky and form a bridge so that the two lovers can be reunited.

Today, the Magpie Festival is celebrated with trips to temples where young ladies pray to Zhinü for love tips and divine assistance with their sewing skills. The holiday is also popular among newlyweds who leave offerings of tea, flowers, and face powder out in their yards, in honor of Zhinü and Niulang. The day after the holiday, it’s a tradition for the couples to toss the powder onto the roof (for good luck in love). Western traditions have crept in, though—lovers also give each other flowers and chocolates.