What better way to celebrate Chinese Valentine’s Day (Qixi Festival) than with one of the most romantic and ancient love stories in Chinese history, passed on faithfully over the millennia… “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl” was first recorded as a poem in the “Classic of Poetry” over 2,600 years ago, and continues to spark the imagination, and the heart-strings, today.
A poor yet noble and hardworking cowherder wins the love of a heavenly fairy, the youngest daughter of the Heavenly Queen. Known as Zhinu or Weaver Girl for her accomplishments in weaving the beautiful colours of the clouds in the sky, this celestial deity accepts a mortal life on earth, and spends many happy years with Cowherd, bearing him twins, a boy and a girl.
They say that many years on earth are equal to just one day in Heaven, and so it was that before too long the Jade Emperor sent his celestial soldiers to return Weaver Girl to the Heavenly Palace. Cowherd is blessed with certain abilities, and manages to follow them as far as the Celestial River - what we know as the Milky Way. Yet here he must wait, for no mortal can pass the Heavenly River.
Cowherd waits so patiently for his true love that a star appears next to the Celestial River - this is the star that we call Altair. Eventually the Jade Queen is moved by Cowherd’s sincerity and devotion, and makes a regal concession: once a year, on the night of Qi Xi - the 7th day of the 7th month in the Chinese lunar calendar - the star-crossed lovers are allowed to meet.
It is said that on that night all the magpies in the human world fly up to the celestial spheres and form a living bridge across the Heavenly River. It is also said that if you stand somewhere very quiet, and listen very hard, on the night of Qi Xi you can hear the loving whispers of the reunited Cowherd and Weaver Girl.
We now want to bring this story right into the 21st century with the romantic yet tragic tale of Zhou Xiangyang and Li Shanshan, our modern day Cowherd and Weaver Girl. Both are practitioners of Falun Gong, a meditation practice based on the universal principles of truth, compassion and forbearance, which has been brutally persecuted in China since 1999. Because of this on-going persecution, the couple have only been able to meet very rarely, just like the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl.
Zhou Xiangyang and Li Shanshan had met only 3 times before Zhou was arrested in May 2003, simply for telling people about Falun Gong and the persecution. Zhou was sentenced to prison for 9 years, and tortured horrifically whilst detained. Hearing accounts of his inhumane treatment, Li felt the flames of compassion and love rise, and made the decision to marry Zhou whilst he was incarcerated. Hence their love affair was born.
In October 2009 Zhou was released on medical parole, and two months later the couple were married. But happiness did not last long - in March 2011 both husband and wife were detained, again for their practice of Falun Gong. This time they had a lot of support. The newly-weds were much loved, and over 7,000 friends, family and neighbours signed a petition demanding the couple’s release. International human rights organization Amnesty International also took up the cause, issuing an urgent appeal that the two be set free. The couple were finally released in 2012.