Long, long ago there lived a poor cowherd, named Niu lang. He had no parents and so lived with his older brother and sister-in-law who treated him very badly, until one day they drove him from the house completely.
As he was sitting alone and wondering what to do an old man came by and told him of a sick ox which needed tending. Niu Lang travelled far and wide and over mountains until he came upon the ox. He fed it and looked after it for a whole month until it was healthy again. The ox then began talking to Niu Lang, and said that he wasn’t really and ox, but a god who had been banished from heaven.
In the meantime Zhi Nu, the daughter of a goddess, escaped from heaven where she felt life was boring, and came to earth seeking new adventures. With the help of the ox, Niu Lang and Zhi Nu met and fell in love. They married and had two children, and lived a very happy life together, until one day the King of the Heavens discovered what had happened and ordered Zhi Nu back to heaven.
Niu Lang pined without her, but the ox had a solution. He ordered Niu Lang to kill him and wear his hide as this would enable him to get to heaven to find Zhi Nu again. Crying, Niu Lang did this and took the two children to heaven. Just as he was about to reach Zhi Nu, the Queen of the Heavens appeared, and taking a silver clip from her hair she scratched the sky to form a deep and wide river between the two lovers, separating them forever.
But the story didn’t end there, because all of the magpies on earth took pity on them and they flew to heaven and created a bridge across the river so that the two lovers could meet again. On seeing this, the goddess relented and permitted the couple to meet once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th month.
This legend is now celebrated as the Chinese Qi Xi festival on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month.
As with many legends, they are inspired by the skies. The river that separates the lovers is the Milky Way, and the couple are represented by the stars Altair (Niu Lang) and Vega (Zhi Nu) which appear on either side of the Milky Way. Two smaller stars close to Altair were said to be their children.