Star festivals on the 7th day of the 7th month in East Asia

By Kazuya Ayani posted 07-27-2023 11:48

July and August are special times for Japanese (and maybe for East Asians) to admire Vega and Altair and the Milky Way. I am going to post about Tanabata and its Chinese origin several times.
“Tanabata” is a traditional Japanese star festival. It is thought to be a mixture of a star festival for Vega and Altair in ancient China, and a spiritual event in ancient Japan. It has been celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month. Two stars on either side of the Milky Way are the main characters of the festival.
Tanabata and Qixi (in China) is based on the legend of a cowherd (Altair) and a weaver girl (Vega) in ancient China. The legend is believed to have been introduced to Japan from China during the Nara period (710-794).
There are some variations of the tale of the cowherd and the weaver girl. The most popular in Japan is as follows (reference: an article in Astroarts’ website,;
There was a weaver girl to the west of the Heavenly River (Milky Way), who was a daughter of the Emperor of Heaven. Every year she wove very beautiful and high-quality cloths. To the east of the Heavenly River, there lived a cowherd, who was a hard worker and took good care of cows.
The Emperor took pity on his daughter’s solitude. He found the cowherd and brought them together. The weaver girl and the cowherd liked each other and married.
But once married, she stopped weaving, and the cowherd stopped taking care of his cows. The Emperor became angry and returned her to the west of the Heavenly River. However, he decided to allow them to meet only once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th month.
A different story was told in Chinese folklore. I will post about it later.
In Japan, Vega is called “Orihime (織り姫)” (a weaver girl) or “Orihime-boshi(織り姫星)” (a weaver girl star). Altair is called “Hiko-boshi (彦星)” (male star). Tanabata used to be celebrated on the 7th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar. Now Japanese people celebrate Tanabata on July 7 of the Gregorian calendar. However, some Tanabata festivals are held on August 7 (a month late Tanabata) or on the 7th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar (Traditional Tanabata). The date of the traditional Tanabata will be August 22, this year, August 10, next year.




07-31-2023 09:57

Qixi in Chinese old literature
As mentioned before, Japanese Tanabata mainly originated in Qixi in ancient China.
Vega and Altair were symbols of the weaver girl, Zhinü (織女) and the cowherd, Niulang (牛郎), respectively in ancient China. Their names first appeared in the part “Xiaoya” (9th and 8th century BCE) of the collection of Chinese poetry, “Classic of Poetry (Shijing)”. However emotions between each other were not depicted.
The first literature which expressed love between the cowherd and the weaver girl was the tenth poem of “Nineteen Old Poems”, which are supposed to be written by anonymous poets during 1st – 3rd century. You can read the English translation here:
Please find the tenth poem which start as “Far, remote the Cowherd star”. "Silver River" in the poem means the Milky Way.
Yinyun(殷芸, 471-529) of Liang dynasty in China mentioned the love story as follows:
There lived a weaver girl, the daughter of the Heavenly Emperor in the east of the heavenly river. She labored at the loom year after year, weaving cloud brocade heavenly clothes, and had no time to keep up appearances. The emperor pitied her for her loneliness and allowed to marry a cowherd in the west of the river. But after the marriage, she abandoned the weaving. The emperor was angry and ordered them to return to the East and the West separately, but they were allowed to meet once a year.
This story is almost identical to the most familiar Japanese Tanabata story, except that the east and west are reversed.
In Jingchu Suishiji (荊楚歲時記) originally written by Zong Lin (宗懔) in the 6th century in China writes, "On the 7th day of the 7th month, the cowherd and the weaver girl meets at night."
Kazuya Ayani

07-31-2023 01:47

Here is another story of the cowherd and the weaver girl in Chinese folklore.

The following story is almost a direct quote from "中国神話・伝説大事典 (Encyclopedia of Myths and Legends of China)" by 袁珂 (Yuan Ke) and translated into Japanese by Hiroshi Suzuki, published by Taishukan ( , ISBN4-469-01261-0). The original Chinese title is "中国神話伝説詞典" published by 上海辞書出版社 in 1985.


The weaver girl (織女) was a granddaughter of the Emperor of Heaven (天帝), and a granddaughter of the Lady Queen of Mother (王母娘娘). In between weaving, she always bathed in the Silver River (the Heavenly River) with some nymphs. The cowherd (牛郎) was a poor orphan in the lower world. He was always bullied by his elder brother’s wife. He was given one old cow and was made independent. At that time, the heaven and the lower world was not so far apart yet, and the Silver River led to the lower world. Following the old cow’s advice (the cow spoke human language!), the cowherd went out to the Silver River and stole the weaver girl’s robe. The weaver girl could not return to heaven and finally became his wife.
A few years later, they had a son and a daughter, and lived happily together, with the cowherd tilling the fields and the weaver girl weaving the clothes. When the Emperor of Heaven learned of this, he was furious and decided to use the heavenly gods to capture the weaver. Lady Queen of Mother went with the heavenly gods. When the weaver was caught and taken to heaven, the cowherd was unable to see her and cried out to heaven with his son and daughter. Just then, the old cow, on the verge of death, told the cowherd, “When I die, strip my skin and wear it, and you will ascend to heaven.” When the cowherd did as the old cow told him to do, he was able to ascend to heaven with his son and daughter. Just as they were about to catch up with the weaver, the Lady Queen of Mother hurriedly pulled a gold hairpin from her head and took a swing, and immediately waves swirled in the Heavenly River. The cowherd and the weaver girl looked at each other across the river, but could not cross it, and could only weep in sorrow. Later, the emperor was touched and allowed them to meet only once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th month, at the Magpie Bridge, a bridge which a flock of magpies form so that the weaver can meet the cowherd.


Maybe the above story is more popular in China, I think.

Similar story is told in Ryukyu Islands of Japan.