To the people of China, the Milky Way was a heavenly river that flowed near the palace of the Sun God. In the palace lived the Sun God’s daughter, who was called Chih-nu (jih-nu), the weaving girl. Seated at her loom, Chih-nu worked diligently, hour after hour and day after day. She cast her shuttle back and forth again and again, slowly making silken fabric of great beauty. She worked so hard that her father worried about her. He thought that if she were married she might be happier.
The Sun God owned some oxen — big, strong cattle used for pulling wagons and plows. Ch’ien-niu (chyen-nyou), the herdsman who watched over them, was a kind, hard-working man. He took good care of the animals. He saw that they were let out to pasture at the right time. If one was injured, he dressed its wounds. The Sun God liked Chj’ien-niu very much. He thought he would make a good husband. So the Sun God arranged a marriage between the herdsman and his daughter.
After the wedding, the princess was very happy. In fact, the Sun God’s plan worked a little too well. Now that they were married, Ch’ieng-niu and Chih-nu were supposed to return to work. The oxen needed tending and the Sun God and his court needed fabric for their clothes.
But the princess and the herdsman were so much in love with each other that they neglected their work. As they sat together holding hands, the oxen wandered all over the fields, trampling the wheat and eating the little bean plants. The princess wasn’t doing any weaving, and the Sun God’s robes were becoming ragged around the sleeves.
The Sun God ordered them back to their jobs, but they could not stay apart. They were soon back together — and not working.
The Sun God was sad. He wanted his daughter to be happy, but the work of the kingdom had to be done. So he ordered the young couple to separate. From now on, Chih-nu would live on one side of the river and tend to her weaving, and Ch’ieng-niu would live on the other and tend the oxen. They could meet only once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month. But how would they cross the river?
When the day finally came, as the princess and the herdsman waited on opposite sides of the river, they heard a faint whirring — the sound of hundreds of wings flapping together.
It was a flock of magpies. The birds darkened the sky like a sudden cloud. They then circled down in formation until they nearly touched the surface of the water. They stretched from one side of the river to the other, forming a bridge.
The princess and the herdsman rushed to each other across the backs of the birds and were reunited for one wonderful day.
Chih-nu and Ch’ien-niu still live apart. Every year, though, on the seventh day of the seventh month, the magpies form a bridge over the waters of the heavenly river. Often, people say, a gentle rain falls on the morning of that day — it’s the tears of joy of the lovers reunited after a year’s separation.
You can see the princess and the herdsman on any clear summer night. If you go outside around 10 p.m. on an August evening and look almost directly overhead, you will see the bright star Vega. Vega is the weaving princess, Chih-nu. Her husband is not far away. Look to the southeast of Vega to find the star Altair. It is the herdsman, Ch’ieng-niu. If you are out in the country where skies are dark, you will be able to see the faint luminous clouds of the Milky Way — the silver river of heaven that flows between the two and separates them.