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Altair (bottom left) and Deneb (middle right)

Altair (bottom left) and Deneb (middle right)

Vega is the second brightest star visible from the northern hemisphere. It is more than twice the size of the sun and it is “only” 25 light years away. Altair is the head of the eagle constellation Aquila—it is the twelfth brightest star visible from Earth. In the West, the two brilliant stars form two of the vertices of the summer triangle. In China, these stars are known by different names—Vega is Zhinü, the weaver girl, and Altair is known as Niulang, the cowherd. They are the subjects of a sad love story which is at least 2600 years old.

The Celestial Weavergirl Zhinü

The Celestial Weavergirl Zhinü

Zhinü was a beautiful celestial maiden tasked with weaving the flowing colored clouds of heaven. This chore was onerous to the vivacious young goddess so she ran away to earth to look for fun. There she found a handsome young mortal Niulang, a hard-working orphan who made his living as a cowherd. The two fell madly in love and were married in secret. The mixed marriage was very happy: Zhinü was a good wife and Niulang was a doting husband. They had two children and the family loved each other deeply. Unfortunately, the Queen Mother of Western Heaven—a principal sky deity—noticed that her celestial abode did not have nearly enough elaborately ornate clouds. Upon looking into the matter, the Queen Mother was utterly scandalized that a celestial being was married to a mortal—and a mere cowherd, no less. The sky queen used her divine power to lift Zhinü back into the heavens where the lesser goddess was sent back to her cloud weaving.

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Niulang was devastated that his wife had vanished. He searched high and low, but could find her nowhere on Earth. Finally the cows he had tended so dutifully took pity on him. His finest ox, a magic spirit beast, said “The Queen Mother of the West has taken Zhinü to heaven. Kill me and put my hide around yourself and your children. Then you may ascend to heaven to look for your dear wife.” Weeping, Niulang slew his faithful ox. When he wrapped the hide of the loyal animal around himself and his children, they transcended earth and flew up into the stars. The family was again united and Zhinü and Niulang covered each other in kisses.

Queen Mother of the Western Heaven by artist Liang Yuanjiang

Queen Mother of the Western Heaven by artist Liang Yuanjiang

When she heard about mortals entering heaven, the Queen Mother of Western Heaven became even more infuriated. She hurled the couple apart from each other, and used her long sharp nails to gouge out a river in the middle of the night sky—the Milky Way (which is known as “the Celestial River” in China). Love be damned–social stratification and rigid hierarchy is the iron will of the gods of China!

QiXiFestival

Yet, once again, animals took pity on the couple. Every year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, all of the magpies in China fly up into heaven and form a bridge across the Milky Way so that the lovers can be together. For one day, Zhinü gets to see her beloved husband and her children (who are the stars Auilae β and γ–or Hè Gu 1 and Hè Gu 3, to use their Chinese names). Lovers and couples across all of China celebrate the day with the Qixi festival–a Chinese version of Valentine’s Day (or maybe I should say that the other way around, since Qixi is older, better and makes more sense). The holiday is celebrating with festoons, weaving, and needlework competitions. Romantic gifts are given. Maidens and newly-wed women offer face powder and cosmetics to Zhinü by throwing them up on the roof. In the evening, there is much romantic star-gazing at Vega and Altair and of course there is canoodling and physical intimacy. This year, the year of the horse, the seventh day of the seventh lunar month corresponds to August 2nd–tomorrow! Dear readers, may the stars shine bright on your romances. May you savor summer with someone special and never know the enmity of the gods! Happy Qixi Festival!

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Magpies and Hare (Ts’ui Po, 1061 AD, ink and watercolor on silk)

Here is an exquisite painting by the Song dynasty master Ts’ui Po which shows two magpies haranguing a passing hare.  It is strange to think that this delicate and refined work was painted 5 years before the battle of Hastings.  The word for magpie is homonymous with the word for happiness—so two magpies represent double happiness–shuāngxǐ—which is one of the most universal Chinese concepts. Lucky shuāngxǐ symbols are plastered all over all sorts of Chinese establishments and goods (I put one at the bottom of this post and I’m sure you’ll recognize it).  Ts’ui Po was famed for his ability to find the underlying rhythm in natural subjects and express it with simple fluid brushwork:  the entire painting is structured as a gentle S-shaped curve, but within that compositional framework the hare and the magpies have their own calligraphic energy.  Also note how wind is blowing back the branches, leaves, and weeds in the painting.   Ts’ui Po captured the tao moving within a small ephemeral moment of natural beauty.

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