A steady flow of young couples weave their way from Bowen Road in Wan Chai up into the hills of Hong Kong Island. In their hands are various offerings of incense and flowers that will be handed over in return for a successful relationship and a fertile marriage. There is no banging, crashing or any of the other uproarious sounds of a temple festival, because the destination is not a temple – it’s a natural site whose phallic shape has earned it spiritual significance.
As the couples reach the end of the path, they encounter a stone outcrop that juts proudly into the sky. It is decorated with daubs of crimson paint, small shrines and banners. Incense smoke pours out from nooks and crannies all around as couples light more and more joss sticks and place them around the rock. Single women also pray to the rock, hoping for a husband, while men offer up bottles of rice wine to improve their potency and produce male offspring. This is Lovers’ Rock, known in Chinese as “Marriage Destiny Rock” (Jan1 Jyun4 Sek6 姻緣石), and it’s the focus of the Seven Sisters Festival.
Some traditional festivals become less prominent as the slow march towards progress leaves much folk culture by the wayside. The Seven Sisters Festival, also known as the Qixi Festival (Cat1 Zik6 Zit3 七夕節), is a yearly event that has retained some aspects of its significance, but lost others. Nowadays the focus is entirely on lovers, which is why it is known to many as “Chinese Valentine’s Day” (Cing4 Jan4 Zit3 情人節). In the past, young girls prayed for skills, such as weaving, so that they could secure a husband. Modern Hong Kong doesn’t have much time for weaving anymore, but the festival still exists through its romantic element.
The amorous nature of the festival lies in the myth surrounding the two stars Altair and Vega. They sit on either side of the Milky Way, and they are closest to each other on the day of the Seven Sisters Festival. A third star, Deneb, forms a symbolic bridge between the stars, which is why the phenomenon is known as the Summer Triangle in astronomical terms. Qixi actually means “Night of Sevens” and the festival is also called the Double Seventh Festival. This is because the festival falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. It is also known as the “Plead for Skills Festival” (Hat1 Kiu2 Zit3 乞巧節) due to the practice of girls praying for needlework and domestic skills. The name Seven Sisters refers to the seven daughters of the Chinese deity, the Jade Emperor (Juk6 Wong4 玉皇), the youngest of whom is Zhinu (Zik1 Neoi5 織女), the Weaver Girl, symbolised by the star Vega.
The story of The Weaver Girl and the Cowherd is one of the most ancient in Chinese culture. The Classic of Poetry (Si1 Ging1 詩經), written 2,600 years ago, refers to the myth, meaning it certainly predates the earliest Chinese literature. There are various versions of the story, with a few different details, but the essence remains the same.
The most common version tells of a boy named Niulang (Ngau4 Long4 牛郎), meaning cowherd, who lived with his cruel older siblings. No longer able to take the torment of his brother and sister, the boy left with his old ox and took to the road. Working hard all day in the fields, Niulang struggled to support himself. The ox, feeling sorry for him, revealed that he was once a god, but had been turned into an ox as punishment for stealing seeds from heaven to give to the humans. The ox told Niulang to go to a secret forest pool at a certain time.
When the boy went to the pool, he saw the seven daughters of the Jade Emperor bathing there. Seizing the opportunity, he stole the clothes of the youngest maiden, Zhinu. When the other sisters saw Niulang, they grabbed their clothes and fled back to heaven. Zhinu asked for her clothes back, but Niulong said that he wanted to marry her. The two married, fell in love and had two children together. After a year had passed, the Jade Emperor noticed that Zhinu was missing. (A year on earth is just one day in heaven.) He immediately had her brought back to heaven and she returned, sadly, to her loom where she had to weave clouds.
Niulang chased after her with their two children, but seeing him coming, Zhinu’s mother, the Queen Mother of the West (Sai1 Wong4 Mou5 西王母), scratched the Silver River into the sky with her hairpin to stop the lovers being reunited. So the two spend the whole year separated by the river until, on the Double Seventh, all of the magpies in the world take pity on them and form a bridge over the river to allow them to be together for just one night.
In the sky, Vega is Zhinu, Altair is Niulang, the Milky Way is the Silver River and the star Deneb is the Magpie Bridge. You can see why the love element has never disappeared, but the other aspects like girls praying to Zhinu for weaving skills have now faded into semi-obscurity. The tradition is practiced by very few people these days, but there are remnants such as cookery and traditional handicraft displays around Hong Kong. Needle threading competitions still take place, where girls try to thread a needle behind their back. If successful, they will have their wishes granted by Zhinu.
There are two Seven Sisters temples in Hong Kong, but they are both comparatively quiet during the festival, as Lovers’ Rock is the main focal point. the smaller of the two temples is a ramshackle concrete construction on Peng Chau called Immortal Sisters Temple (Sin1 Zi2 Miu6 仙姊廟), and is actually dedicated to local Hakka deities also called the Seven Sisters (Cat1 Zi2 Mui6 七姊妹). These local deities are likely manifestations of the Jade Emperor’s daughters in local folklore. For this reason, the temple sees some footfall on the Double Seventh.
The bigger temple is in Kwun Hang, Shap Sze Heung in the north of Sai Kung. The temple is called the Seven Saints Ancient Temple (Cat1 Sing3 Gu2 Miu6 七聖古廟) and is dedicated to the heavenly Seven Sisters, including Zhinu. Some girls still visit the temple during the Qixi Festival, making offerings of toiletries in sets of seven, including combs, mirrors, powder puffs and paper flowers. Much like the Mid-Autumn Festival, the Double Seventh is more of a home affair, with girls making offerings to the stars in their own houses and apartments. Fruits and small pastries called “skill fruits” (kiu2 gwo2 巧果) are a traditional offering, as they hope for “sweet love” in return.
Back in the hills above Wan Chai, the smoke from Lovers’ Rock dissipates into the evening air as the last of the young people leave the scene. The more modern traditions of going out to dinner and giving chocolates to lovers has become more common in Hong Kong. As the tables of Hong Kong’s restaurants fill with couples on a romantic date, the story of the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd is told to children all across the territory. The story will stay with them and when they are older they will bear the two lovers separated by the stars in mind as they stare across the table into their sweetheart’s eyes.
The Seven Sisters festival falls on 28 August 2017
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.