Is Qixi Festival more than a Chinese Valentine’s Day?

Is Qixi Festival more than a Chinese Valentine’s Day?

Commercialism and the influence of the West's Valentine's Day threaten to undermine the traditions of China's Qixi Festival, but there are those fighting to uphold its cultural significance
Qixi (七夕) Festival
Showing Qixi Festival's nuptial roots, a model wears a wedding dress at the Qixi Festival Single Party blending a modern Valentine's Day event with what many believe the traditional Qixi Festival is about -- marital unions.

China's Qixi Festival, which this year falls on August 16, is becoming increasing know as 'Chinese Valentine’s Day'. However, this traditional Chinese festival based on a romantic love story that started more than 2,000 years ago originally had little association with St. Valentine or Hallmark.

Like all folk tales, there are many variations of the Qixi Festival legend, but the basic story is usually the same: a Chinese couple, Niulang (cow herder) and Zhinv (fairy weaver girl) were separated by the goddess of Heaven, who was angry that a fairy would want to marry a mortal. They could only meet once a year on a bridge formed by magpies, who took pity on the separated couple.

Although few argue that Qixi Festival is a lovers’ holiday, its association with the Western Valentine’s Day is relatively new. The debate has heated up as the festival draws closer and experts on both sides are weighing in.

Experts debate

Feng Jincai, president of Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society, certainly doesn’t think Qixi should be considered a Chinese Valentine’s Day.

“Niulang and Zhinv are a married couple and had children, Qixi Festival conveys messages of devoted loyal love between married couples who want to grow old together. It’s different from the love of unmarried people,” he argues.

Nowadays, more and more Chinese people are estranged from traditional Chinese festivals, instead, Western festivals such as Valentine’s Day and Christmas are more accepted, especially by young people.— Luo Yi, Deputy Head of Hunan Broadcasting System

On the other hand, Liu Zhiwen, head of Folklore Society of Guangdong, thinks Qixi Festival should be seen more holistically, and considered as one of three Chinese Valentine’s Days along with The Lantern Festival and Shangsi Ri (上巳日), the third day of March in the lunar calendar. 

“Qixi Festival is born to be a lovers’ festival. During this day, the girls pray to find ideal husbands and married couples pray to have a good life,” he explains. It might not be a fit for all couples, but Liu argues it has the same basis of Valentine’s Day: love.

In a Chinese collection of poetry known as Shijing (诗经, "Book of Songs"), which dates back to 2,000 years ago, Liu explains that there were records of love poetry regarding the Qixi Festival. The poems are about love, not marriage. From this basis, Liu believes that the festival merely requires two people in love to celebrate.

Qixi Festival's current status

Even though the experts differ on their opinions on the true meaning of Qixi Festival, they agree on one thing: it’s important to protect traditional Chinese festivals and to restore the traditions behind the festivals. This might mean avoiding commercialization.

Although Qixi Festival has regained popularity in recent years, it has struggled to compete with Western Valentine’s Day. Many young people choose to celebrate Western Valentine’s Day over Qixi Festival -- during Qixi young girls traditionally demonstrate their domestic arts, and wish for a good husband during the festival -- or at least merge the two.

“I’d prefer Western Valentine’s day rather than Qixi Festival,” says Fang Weinan, a local Shanghainese girl. “Qixi Festival has nothing to do with lovers, the background story is about a married couple. Also the promotion of this festival is getting too commercialized now. In ancient times, there is a whole set of rituals to celebrate this day, but nowadays the way it’s celebrated has lost the traditions and is not much different from Western Valentine’s Day.”

Media in action

With the festival’s waning popularity, mainstream Chinese media have come to its defense.

Hubei Satellite TV and Hunan Broadcasting System are now taking actions to promote Chinese festivals with more local flavors. Hubei Satellite TV is organizing the Qixi Festival Love Song Gala from August 9-16, aimed at presenting "positive love between couples, love of family, friends and China." (This is in stark contrast to the recent spate of Chinese dating shows that have gotten much media attention.)

Additionally, Hunan Broadcasting System is organizing a series of shows to air nationwide called "Our Festivals" (我们的节日), which will support China’s bid for seven traditional Chinese festivals to be accepted by UNESCO as “Intangible Cultural Heritage.” One of these festivals is Qixi Festival.

The first episode features Qixi Festival and a culture gala will be thrown by the station in the holiday's honor.

Luo Yi, deputy head of Hunan Broadcasting System, said in an interview reported on Netease news that, “The purpose of organizing such culture activities is to protect our traditional festivals and promote traditional Chinese culture. Nowadays, more and more Chinese people are estranged from traditional Chinese festivals. Instead, Western festivals such as Valentine’s Day and Christmas are more accepted, especially by young people. I think one of the reasons is there isn’t enough promotion of traditional Chinese festivals.”


Now a freelancer writer, Zat Liu has been writing about Shanghai since 2003 when she started in "that's Shanghai" magazine.
Read more about Zat Liu