The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl
The reunion of the couple on the bridge of magpies. Artwork in the Long Corridor of the Summer Palace, Beijing
Traditional Chinese牛郎織女
Simplified Chinese牛郎织女
Literal meaningCowherd [and] Weaver Girl
The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl meeting on the magpie bridge.
The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl meeting on the magpie bridge.

The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl are characters found in Chinese mythology and appear eponymously in a romantic Chinese folk tale. The story tells of the romance between Zhinü (織女; the weaver girl, symbolized by the star Vega) and Niulang (牛郎; the cowherd, symbolized by the star Altair).[1] Despite their love for each other, their romance was forbidden, and thus they were banished to opposite sides of the heavenly river (symbolizing the Milky Way).[1][2] Once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, a flock of magpies would form a bridge to reunite the lovers for a single day. Though there are many variations of the story,[1] the earliest-known reference to this famous myth dates back to a poem from the Classic of Poetry from over 2600 years ago:[3]

The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl originated from people’s worship of natural celestial phenomena, and later developed into the Qiqiao or Qixi Festival since the Han Dynasty.[5][better source needed] It has also been celebrated as the Tanabata festival in Japan and the Chilseok festival in Korea.[6] In ancient times, women would make wishes to the stars of Vega and Altair in the sky during the festival, hoping to have a wise mind, a dexterous hand (in embroidery and other household tasks), and a good marriage.[7]

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.[8][9]

The story of The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl and its two main characters are popular in various parts of Asia and elsewhere, with different places adopting different variations. Some historical and cross cultural similarities to other stories have also been observed. The story is referenced in various literary and popular cultural sources.


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

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


Influence and variations

The story of the cowherd and weaver girl spread across Asia, with different variations appearing in various languages and regions over the course of time. In Southeast Asia, the story has been conflated into a Jataka tale detailing the story of Manohara,[12] the youngest of seven daughters of the Kinnara King, who lives on Mount Kailash and falls in love with Prince Sudhana.[13]

In Korea, the story focuses on Jicknyeo, a weaver girl who falls in love with Gyeonwoo, a 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, the weaver, and Ngưu Lang, the herder of buffalos.[needs context][14] The Vietnamese version is also titled The Weaver Fairy and the Buffalo Boy.[15]

Tale type

In the first catalogue of Chinese folktales (devised in 1937), Wolfram Eberhard abstracted a Chinese folktype indexed as number 34, Schwanenjungfrau ("The Swan Maiden"): a poor human youth is directed to the place where supernatural women bathe by a cow or a deer; the women may be Swan Maidens, a celestial weaver, one of the Pleiades, one of the "9 Celestial Maidens", or a fairy; he steals the garments of one of them and makes her his wife; she finds the garments and flies back to Heaven; the youth goes after her, and meets her in the Heavenly realm; the Heavenly king decrees that the couple shall meet only once a year.[16] Based on some of the variants available then, Eberhard dated the story to the 5th century, although the tale seems much older, with references to it in the Huainanzi (2nd century BC).[17] Eberhard also supposed that the fairy tale preceded the astral myth.[17]

Chinese folklorist and scholar Ting Nai-tung [zh] classified the versions of The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl under the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index ATU 400, "The Quest for the Lost Wife".[18] The tale also holds similarities with widespread tales of the swan maiden (bird maiden or bird princess).[19]

Cultural references

Similar to the Chang'e space program being named after the Chinese goddess of the moon, the Queqiao and Queqiao-2 relay satellite is named after the "bridge of magpies" from the Chinese tale of the cowherd and weaver girl.[22] The Chang'e 4 landing site is known as Statio Tianhe, which refers to the heavenly river in the tale.[23] The nearby far-side lunar craters Zhinyu and Hegu are named after Chinese constellations associated with the weaver girl and the cowherd.[23]

In Japan, the Engineering Test Satellite VII mission was an automated rendezvous and docking test of two satellites nicknamed "Orihime" and "Hikoboshi."


See also


  1. ^ a b c 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. ^ Karlgren, Bernhard (1950). The Book of Odes (PDF). Stockholm: Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities.
  5. ^ Schomp, Virginia (2009). The Ancient Chinese. New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark. p. 70. ISBN 978-0761442165.
  6. ^ Hearn, Lafcadio; Rogers, Bruce (1905). The romance of the Milky Way : and other studies & stories. Wellesley College Library. Boston : Houghton Mifflin.
  7. ^ "Cultural discourse on Xue Susu, a courtesan in late Ming China". International Journal of Asian Studies; Cambridge.
  8. ^ Gao, Jie. Saving the Nation through Culture: The Folklore Movement in Republican China. Contemporary Chinese Studies. University of British Columbia Press.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ Qiu, Xiaolong (2003). Treasury of Chinese love poems. New York: Hippocrene Books. p. 133. ISBN 9780781809689.
  11. ^ Owen, Stephen [translator & editor], Warner, Ding Xiang [editor], Kroll, Paul [editor] (2016). The Poetry of Du Fu Open access icon, Volume 2. De Gruyter Mouton. Pages 168–169. ISBN 978-1-5015-0189-0
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ Jaini, Padmanabh S. (ed.) (2001). Collected Papers on Buddhist Studies Page 297-330. ISBN 81-208-1776-1.
  14. ^ Landes, A. Contes et légendes annamites. Saigon: Imprimerie Coloniale. 1886. p. 125 (footnote nr. 1).
  15. ^ Vuong, Lynette Dyer. Sky legends of Vietnam. New York, NY: HarperCollins. 1993. pp. 54-80.ISBN 0-06-023000-2
  16. ^ Eberhard, Wolfram (1937). Typen Chinesischer Volksmärchen. FF Communications (in German). Vol. 120. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica. pp. 55–57.
  17. ^ a b Eberhard, Wolfram (1937). Typen Chinesischer Volksmärchen. FF Communications (in German). Vol. 120. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica. pp. 58–59.
  18. ^ Nai-tung TING. A Type Index of Chinese Folktales in the Oral Tradition and Major Works of Non-religious Classical Literature. (FF Communications, no. 223) Helsinki, Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1978. p. 65.
  19. ^ Haase, Donald. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales: A-F. Greenwood Publishing Group. 2007. p. 198.
  20. ^ Sagan, Carl (September 1985). Contact. Cover illustration by Jon Lomberg (1st ed.). New York. ISBN 0-671-43400-4. OCLC 12344811.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  21. ^ "Chapter 2 Beware of Tanabata - WikiMoon". Retrieved 2021-02-11.
  22. ^ 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
  23. ^ 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

Further reading

  • Yu, Eric Kwan-wai (1998). "Of Marriage, Labor and the Small Peasant Family: A Morphological and Feminist Study of the Cowherd and Weaving Maid Folktales". Comparative Literature and Culture. 3: 11–51.
  • Ping, Xu (2016). "All the way to the Altair and the fable of cowherd and the weaving maiden". Proceedings of the 2016 2nd International Conference on Education Technology, Management and Humanities Science. Atlantis Press. pp. 708–711. doi:10.2991/etmhs-16.2016.156. ISSN 2352-5398.