The Legend of the Milky Way, also known as “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl” or “Niulang and Zhinü,” is a famous Chinese folk tale that has been passed down through generations. It is a romantic story that explains the origins of the annual Chinese festival known as Qixi, which is sometimes referred to as the Chinese Valentine’s Day. Here’s the full story:
Once upon a time, in ancient China, there was a young and kind cowherd named Niulang. He lived with his elderly cow, which was his only companion. Niulang was hardworking and lived a simple life, but he often felt lonely and longed for a companion to share his days with.
In the heavenly realm, there was a beautiful celestial maiden named Zhinü, who was the seventh daughter of the Goddess of Heaven. She was responsible for weaving clouds and rainbows in the sky. Despite her heavenly beauty and talent, Zhinü also felt lonely and yearned for a life outside the celestial realm.
One day, the Heavenly Emperor learned about Zhinü’s secret visits to Earth, where she would bathe and have fun in a secluded pond. He was displeased with her actions, so he decided to punish her by placing her on the far side of the Milky Way, separating her from the human world forever.
One evening, as Niulang was returning home after grazing his cow, he noticed something extraordinary near the pond where Zhinü often bathed. There, he saw the breathtakingly beautiful Zhinü, and as soon as their eyes met, they fell deeply in love with each other.
Despite being a mere mortal and a celestial being, Niulang and Zhinü couldn’t resist their feelings for each other. They got married and lived happily as husband and wife, and even the cow was delighted for its kind master.
However, their happiness caught the attention of the Goddess of Heaven, who was still displeased with Zhinü’s actions. She ordered her to return to the heavenly realm, separating the couple and forcing Zhinü to continue her duties as a celestial weaver.
Distraught, Niulang refused to accept the loss of his beloved wife. Moved by his love and the cries of his children, the old cow revealed its true identity as a heavenly being. It advised Niulang to take its hide and use it as a means to fly to the heavenly realm to find Zhinü.
With the cowhide’s help, Niulang and his two children transformed into stars, forming a makeshift bridge across the Milky Way to reach Zhinü. The bridge was called the “Magpie Bridge,” as legend has it that magpies would fly up to form a bridge for them to meet once a year.
On the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, magpies would gather to create the bridge, allowing Niulang and Zhinü to reunite for a single day. This day became the Qixi Festival, a day celebrated by lovers in China, akin to Valentine’s Day in the Western world.
However, the reunion is bittersweet, as the two lovers are separated again by the end of the day, and they must wait for another year to meet. Their enduring love and devotion became a symbol of true love and devotion in Chinese culture.
The Legend of the Milky Way has been passed down through generations, inspiring poems, songs, and artworks, and it remains a beloved and cherished tale in Chinese folklore to this day.