The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl

Below is the traditional Chinese folktale of “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl,” which is connected to the Japanese festival Tanabata. I found this translation online, but without credit to the translator, so if you know who the original translator is please let me know so I can credit them.

Illustration of The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl

Once upon a time, two stars in the heavens fell in love with each other. Theirs was a forbidden love because one of the stars, named Zhinu, was the Queen Mother’s granddaughter.

It wasn’t long before the Queen Mother, Wangmu, found out about their secret love. When she did, she flew into an almighty fury. She condemned her granddaughter to weave ceaselessly in the sky and banished her beloved from the heavens to keep them separated.

On Earth, her beloved was born anew into a farmer’s family and given the name Niulang (meaning “cowherd”). When he was still a young boy, both his parents died and he was left in the care of his older brother and his brother’s wife. However, they were not good to him and they sent him from the house with only an old ox to help him make his way in the world.

Niulang and his ox companion worked hard to earn a living and, in time, Niulang saved enough to buy a small house for the two of them. Niulang had no family or friends and his days were spent alone, with only the old ox for company.

One day in the realm of the gods, several celestial maidens begged Wangmu to allow them to go swimming in a beautiful lake on Earth. The Queen Mother was in particularly good humour that day and gave them permission to go. As they were about to descend to Earth, they saw Zhinu at her loom, weaving with an expression of profound sorrow on her face, and they asked Wangmu if she could join them. Wangmu was not completely unfeeling and, seeing the sorrow on her granddaughter’s face, she said that she could, on the condition that they did not stay at the lake long.

On that same day, Niulang’s old ox opened its mouth and spoke to him. The ox said, “Niulang, you must go to Bilian Lake today. A group of fair maidens are coming to swim in the lake. When they are in the water, you must take the red clothes abandoned on the banks and hide them somewhere. If you do, the owner of the clothes will agree to be your wife.”

When Niulang had gotten over his surprise, he hastened to the lake and found a place to hide amongst the reeds. Before long, the celestial maidens arrived with Zhinu. They undressed at the edge of the lake, waded out into the lake’s crystalline waters and began to swim. When they were out in the middle of the lake, far from the banks, Niulang ran to the pile of clothes they had left there, took the red garments from it and ran off into the trees to hide them before the maidens could stop him.

When Niulang returned, he went to Zhinu on the shore and told her that he would return her clothes to her on the condition that she must promise to marry him. Zhinu looked at Niulang and found that there was something familiar about him, something she recognised, and, after a moment spent looking into his eyes, she realized that he was her celestial lover in human form. She agreed to marry him.

They were happy together as a married couple and their happiness went undisturbed for quite some time. Zhinu bore two children – a son and a daughter – and it seemed as though they would be able to stay together forever.

In time, Wangmu realised that Zhinu was missing. Her anger flared up once again and she ordered the gods to pluck Zhinu from Earth and return her to her rightful place in the heavens. The gods descended on the winds of a great tempest that had been sent from the heavens. They found Zhinu alone in her house and took her away with them.

As Zhinu was carried up into the heavens in the clutches of the gods, she heard the voice of Niulang calling out from behind her. She looked back and saw that he was following them with their children in his arms.

The distance between them shrank as they flew through the heavens. When Wangmu saw that Niulang was catching up with the gods, she plucked a hairpin from her head and used it to slice open the sky between the lovers. In seconds, a mighty river had gushed out of the gash in the sky, separating Zhinu from her husband and her two children.

The children shouted across the river at their mother and both Zhinu and Niulang wept because their happiness had been stolen from them once again. Their sorrow did not abate and eventually even the gods began to sympathize with them.

Wangmu was the last to be touched by their sorrow, but when she was, she made a concession to the lovers and allowed them to be reunited once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, when magpies would rise from the Earth and form a bridge across the river for the lovers to cross.

The river in the sky is visible even now, known to us as the Milky Way. We can also see the lovers on either side of this great river if we know where to find them – we know them as Vega and Altair, and they are two of the brighter stars in the night sky.


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