The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl

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The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl is a Chinese folk tale. The tale of the cowherd and the weaver girl is a love story between Zhinü (織女; the weaver girl, symbolizing the star Vega) and Niulang (牛郎; the cowherd, symbolizing the star Altair).[1] Their love was not allowed, thus they were banished to opposite sides of the heavenly river (symbolizing the Milky Way).[1][2] Once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, a flock of magpies would form a bridge to reunite the lovers for one day.[1] There are many variations of the story.[1]

The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl
Niulang and Zhinv (Long Corridor).JPG
The reunion of the couple on the bridge of magpies. Artwork in the Long Corridor of the Summer Palace, Beijing
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese牛郎織女
Simplified Chinese牛郎织女
Literal meaningCowherd [and] Weaver Girl
Korean name
Japanese name
Vietnamese name
VietnameseNgưu Lang Chức Nữ

The earliest-known reference to this famous myth dates back to over 2600 years ago, which was told in a poem from the Classic of Poetry.[3] The tale of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl has been celebrated in the Qixi Festival in China since the Han dynasty.[4] It has also been celebrated in the Tanabata festival in Japan, and in the Chilseok festival in Korea.[5]

The story was selected as one of China's Four Great Folktales by the "Folklore Movement" in the 1920s—the others being the Legend of the White Snake, Lady Meng Jiang, and Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai—but Idema (2012) also notes that this term neglects the variations and therefore diversity of the tales, as only a single version was taken as the true version.[6]


The tale has been alluded to in many literary works. One of the most famous was the poem by Qin Guan (1049–1100) during the Song dynasty:



Meeting across the Milky way

Through the varying shapes of the delicate clouds,
the sad message of the shooting stars,
a silent journey across the Milky Way.
One meeting of the Cowherd and Weaver amidst the golden autumn wind and jade-glistening dew,
eclipses the countless meetings in the mundane world.
The feelings soft as water,
the ecstatic moment unreal as a dream,
how can one have the heart to go back on the bridge made of magpies?
If the two hearts are united forever,
why do the two persons need to stay together—day after day, night after night?[7]

Du Fu (712–770) of the Tang dynasty wrote a poem about the heavenly river:



The Heavenly River

Most of the time it may be hidden or fully visible,
but when autumn comes, it gets immediately bright.
Even if covered over by faint clouds,
in the long run it can be clear through the long night.
Full of stars, it stirs by paired palace gates,
moon’s companion, it sinks by a frontier fort.
Oxherd and Weaver cross it every year,
and when have storms ever arisen thereon?[8]

Influence and variationsEdit

The story with differing variations is also popular in other parts of Asia. In Southeast Asia, the story has been conflated into a Jataka tale detailing the story of Manohara,[9] the youngest of seven daughters of the Kinnara King who lives on Mount Kailash and falls in love with Prince Sudhana.[10]

In Korea, it revolves around the story of Jingnyeo, the weaver girl who falls in love with Gyeonu, the herder. In Japan, the story revolves around the romance between the deities, Orihime and Hikoboshi. In Vietnam, the story is known as Ngưu Lang Chức Nữ and revolves around the story of Chức Nữ and Ngưu Lang.[needs context]

The story has similarities with the Mesopotamian Dumuzi and Inanna.

Cultural referencesEdit

Reference to the story is also made by Carl Sagan in his book Contact. The tale and the Tanabata festival are also the basis of the Sailor Moon side story entitled Chibiusa's Picture Diary-Beware the Tanabata!, where both Vega and Altair make an appearance. The Post-Hardcore band La Dispute named and partially based their first album, Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair, after the tale. The JRPG Bravely Second: End Layer also uses the names Vega and Altair for a pair of story-important characters who shared a love interest in each other years before the game's story began, Deneb being their common friend. South Korean girl group Red Velvet's song "One of These Nights" from their 2016 EP, The Velvet, also references the legend of the two lovers. J-pop band Supercell also references the story on its song "Kimi no Shiranai Monogatari". The novel Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart is centered around the tale, but incorporates many more Chinese folk stories while retelling the tale.

Similar to the Chang'e space program being named after the Chinese goddess of the moon, the Queqiao relay satellite of Chang'e 4 is named after the "bridge of magpies" from the Chinese tale of the cowherd and weaver girl.[11] The Chang'e 4 landing site is known as Statio Tianhe, which refers to the heavenly river in the tale.[12] The nearby far-side lunar craters Zhinyu and Hegu are named after Chinese constellations associated with the weaver girl and the cowherd.[12]


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d Brown, Ju; Brown, John (2006). China, Japan, Korea: Culture and customs. North Charleston: BookSurge. p. 72. ISBN 978-1-4196-4893-9.
  2. ^ Lai, Sufen Sophia (1999). "Father in Heaven, Mother in Hell: Gender politics in the creation and transformation of Mulian's mother". Presence and presentation: Women in the Chinese literati tradition. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 191. ISBN 978-0312210540.
  3. ^ Schomp, Virginia (2009). The ancient Chinese. New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark. p. 89. ISBN 978-0761442165.
  4. ^ Schomp, Virginia (2009). The ancient Chinese. New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark. p. 70. ISBN 978-0761442165.
  5. ^ Hearn, Lafcadio; Rogers, Bruce (1905). The romance of the Milky Way : and other studies & stories. Wellesley College Library. Boston : Houghton Mifflin.
  6. ^ Idema, Wilt L. (2012). "Old Tales for New Times: Some Comments on the Cultural Translation of China's Four Great Folktales in the Twentieth Century" (PDF). Taiwan Journal of East Asian Studies. 9 (1): 26. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-10-06.
  7. ^ Qiu, Xiaolong (2003). Treasury of Chinese love poems. New York: Hippocrene Books. p. 133. ISBN 9780781809689.
  8. ^ Owen, Stephen [translator & editor], Warner, Ding Xiang [editor], Kroll, Paul [editor] (2016). The Poetry of Du Fu  , Volume 2. De Gruyter Mouton. Pages 168–169. ISBN 978-1-5015-0189-0
  9. ^ Cornell University (2013). Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University: Fall Bulletin 2013. Page 9. "It is generally accepted that the tale of Manora (Manohara) told in Southeast Asia has become conflated with the story of the cowherd and the celestial Weaver girl, popular in China, Korea, and Japan. This conflation of tales, in which Indian and Chinese concepts of sky nymphs cohere, suggests a consummate example of what historian Oliver Wolters refers to as “localization” in Southeast Asia.
  10. ^ Jaini, Padmanabh S. (ed.) (2001). Collected Papers on Buddhist Studies Page 297-330. ISBN 81-208-1776-1.
  11. ^ Wall, Mike (18 May 2018). "China Launching Relay Satellite Toward Moon's Far Side Sunday". Space. Future plc. Archived 18 May 2018 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ a b Bartels, Meghan (15 February 2019). "China's Landing Site on the Far Side of the Moon Now Has a Name". Space. Future plc. Archived 15 February 2019 at the Wayback Machine