七夕節 (Qīxì jié), also known as 乞巧節 (Qǐqiǎo jié), falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. The festival celebrates the love story of the cowherd 牛郎 (niúláng) and the Weaving Maid 織女 (zhīnǚ). The myth of the Cowherd and the Weaving Maid 牛郎與織女 (niú láng yú zhī nǚ) is considered one of the Four Classic Chinese Folktales.
The story begins in heaven where the Weaving Maid (Vega) and the Cowherd (Altair) were both heavenly stars. They fell deeply in love with each other. However, this love was forbidden and when the Queen Mother of the West 王母 (Wáng Mǔ) found out she was furious, banishing the Cowherd star down to earth as an immortal. The Weaving Maid, her granddaughter, was made to weave continuously with celestial silk to form the clouds in the sky.
On earth, the Cowherd star was reborn into a farming family. However, his parents died when he was still young, leaving him to his older brother and brother's wife who sent him away with only an old ox. The Cowherd and his ox thus made their own way in the world with just each other for company.
One day a group of celestial maidens asked the Queen Mother of the West 王母 (Wáng Mǔ) permission to visit a lake in the mortal realm called Bilian Lake 碧蓮池 (bìlián chí). Being in a good mood, the Queen Mother of the West 王母 (Wáng Mǔ) granted them permission to go. Feeling sorry for the Weaving Maid, they beseeched the Queen Mother to allow the Weaving Maid to go as well. The Queen Mother of the West 王母 (Wáng Mǔ) reluctantly agreed.
On the same day, the old ox, who was actually the Golden Ox Star 金牛星 (Jīn niú xīng), suddenly spoke, shocking the Cowherd who had never previously heard him speak before. The old ox told the Cowherd, "You must go to Bilian Lake 碧蓮池 (bìlián chí) today. There you will find the clothes of some celestial maidens by the rocks. As they are swimming in the lake you must take the red one and hide it somewhere. The owner of the clothes will agree to become your wife."
Once the Cowherd got over his shock, he did as the ox ordered and nabbed the red garment from the pile of clothes by the rocks. The celestial maidens, seeing the human, hastily threw on their clothes and fled in fright back to their celestial home. Only one celestial maiden was left, the Weaving Maid. The Cowherd approached the Weaving Maid and asked her to be his wife in exchange for her dress. Upon seeing the Cowherd, she recognized him as the Cowherd Star whom she was still deeply in love with. Thus, she happily agreed to marry him.
The Celestial Maid and the Cowherd were thus happily married for quite some time. In time they had two children, one son and one daughter.
Alas, their happiness did not last forever. The old ox passed away one day. Before it died the ox told the Cowherd to keep his hide, that it would allow the Cowherd to fly into the sky. Sadly they buried the ox and did as the ox said.
In the meantime, the Queen Mother of the West discovered that the Weaving Maid had married the Cowherd and remained on earth. She immediately ordered the celestial guards to to bring the Weaving Maid back from the mortal world. The celestial guards stormed in and grabbed the Weaving Maid. She could do nothing but go with them. The Cowherd remembering the Ox's words immediately grabbed their two children and followed them. As he began to catch up with the Weaving Maid, the Queen Mother of the West appeared and with a wave of her hairpin created an impenetrable river (the Milky Way) between the Weaving Maid and the Cowherd and their children. They were forced to gaze helplessly across the Milky Way at each other. Stricken with grief, they cried without abate. Eventually the gods were touched by their sorrow and finally even the Queen Mother of the West felt for the lovers.
Moved by their love, the Queen Mother of the West consented to allow them to reunite once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. On this day magpies would fly to form a bridge across the Milky Way to allow the Weaving Maid and the Cowherd (and the two children) to reunite for the day.
To this day we can see the river as the Milky Way and Weaving Maid as Vega and the Cowherd as Altair in the sky.