Qixi Festival is a day for celebrating love. But this year, many have proposed acknowledging the occasion as a day to raise awareness of sexual abuse, considering some of the problematic events in its folklore.
Sometimes called Chinese Valentine’s Day, Qixi celebrates the romance between Niulang and Zhinü. According to the original version of the tale, the cowherd Niulang was told by his cow to steal Zhinü’s clothes while the weaver fairy-girl was bathing in a lake so he could later come to her rescue.
That encounter is believed to have sparked the pair’s romance, which culminated in marriage. However, the two lovers were banished to opposite sides of a heavenly river, as Zhinü’s grandmother disapproved of the relationship between an earthbound mortal and a celestial fairy.
Legend has it that a flock of magpies swoop down on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, forming a bridge and reuniting the lovers for one day each year. This year, that day fell on Tuesday.
“The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl” is one of the best-known folktales in China, and it’s commonly found in primary school textbooks. But with growing awareness of the intricacies of sex and relationships, the legend has come under fresh scrutiny for content that many consider abusive.
In one damning article published on social platform WeChat, doctor and writer Li Qingchen said the legendary love story of Niulang and Zhinü “isn’t beautiful at all by today’s standards,” adding that the day should instead be commemorated as China’s Anti-Sexual Abuse Day.
“If we analyze the cowherd character according to (the tale’s) earlier version, we will find that many of the social and psychological characteristics of the cowherd are consistent with a rapist,” Li wrote in Tuesday’s article, which has been viewed over 18,000 times. “He is simply a textbook rapist.”
On social platform Douban, too, many have expressed dissatisfaction with the romanticized folktale.
“I remembered feeling very weird when I heard this story during my childhood” wrote one user under a related post. “There was a picture in the children’s book showing the cowherd hiding behind a tree, taking the weaver girl’s clothes and peeping at her taking a bath.”
This is not the first time the folktale has been called out for normalizing sexual abuse.
In a 2014 paper, folklore scholar Qi Lingyun wrote that the celebrated love story was intentionally changed to the current version to reduce “gender tension” — a political move to highlight how freer love can defy feudal influences. While versions of the story dating from before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 stated that Zhinü just wanted to leave after retrieving her stolen clothes, the current version romanticizes their encounter.
“The legend’s romance between the cowherd and the weaver girl before the founding of the People’s Republic of China is not what we would now recognize as true love,” Qi explained in her paper. “The cowherd was able to marry the weaver girl because of his cow’s suggestion that he steal the fairy’s clothes. After their marriage, the weaver girl was actually thinking about ways to retrieve her clothes and escape the mortal realm.”
While textbooks tend to omit or gloss over the more eyebrow-raising parts of the folktale, Niulang’s voyeurism and theft of Zhinü’s clothes are often included in children’s books and cartoons. Last year, the People’s Education Press — a textbook publishing house under the Ministry of Education — provoked debate after such explicit details were added in fifth-grade textbooks, some of which are still around.
“This is a folktale adapted from Mr. Ye Shengtao,” the press said in response to the controversy, referring to a prominent Chinese writer and educator. “Don’t project so many vulgar things onto a beautiful love story. If one were to do this, Western myths would not stand up to scrutiny (either). They are even more absurd and ridiculous.”
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: Shijue Select/People Visual)