China’s Fake & Real Valentine’s Days

Every February, more than a billion people carefully plan where to go, what to do, what to buy, who to call and more. If you’re alone, it’s even worse. Now imagine doing that three times per year.

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It appears as though China is facing off against France for the most romantic country considering how many Valentine’s Days it has. People living here for a while have probably noticed that there are at least three specific dates. The obvious one is the West’s “official” Valentine’s Day on February 14. Though, despite its prominence, its thunder is often stolen by the Spring Festival because so little time separates them. The second date is during the Lantern Festival, which take place on the 15th day of the first month in the Chinese calendar (usually in March). The third event is Qixi, or Double Seventh Festival that comes on the seventh day of the seventh month (mostly in August).

It might seem crazy with at least two celebrations for love each year, but we have to ask: Does China have an authentic Valentine’s Day? The answer is actually quite controversial. Some folklorists argue that ancient China had only two occasions when unmarried women from the middle and upper classes were allowed from their homes for an opportunity to meet random men. Of the two, Qixi Festival was never one of them.

So, how come the Qixi Festival is actively promoted as one of the three big days for lovers? Basically, it’s all because of a well-known romantic tragedy.

One day, a shepherd called Niulang saw a beautiful girl taking a swim in a lake near where his cows would graze. Instead of immediately trying to talk to her, he employed some wit and hid her clothes. The girl, called Zhinü, was actually a fairy weaver from heaven who ran off from her substantial work (slavery does exist in heaven) to enjoy a day of relaxation in the mortal world. Since she couldn’t fly back without the clothes, her only choice was to walk home with the only “nice” guy she would be lucky enough to find.

Instead of immediately trying to talk to her, he employed some wit and hid her clothes. Since she couldn’t fly back without the clothes, her only choice was to walk home with the only “nice” guy she would be lucky enough to find.

When she later met Niulang, he of course didn’t tell her of his mischief. They soon fell in love and had two children. After some time, the Empress of heaven found out and took her back to work. Back in heaven, she silently protested with continuous tears, day after day. In the end, the Emperor of heaven was so moved that he allowed the pair to meet on a bridge formed by magpies once per year on the seventh day of the seventh month.

For years, this tale of deceit has been positively portrayed to represent true love. Traditionally, the Qixi Festival was more like the Daughter’s Festival, which is where girls pray for better crafting and weaving skills from the Seven Sisters (Zhinü is one of them). It was not until the recent decade that people started to arrange match-making events on this day and brought romantic meaning to the festival all based on a story. Of all of the three most famous Chinese Valentine’s Days, the Qixi Festival is the most debated.

Historically, the only two occasions when women were allowed to go out and have fun during a year were the Lantern and Shangsi Festivals. The Lantern Festival pulls together women, children and seniors to go out and watch colorful lanterns. Beneath the banner of this romantic setting, it was easy to meet someone special and made for a perfect dating setting, as well.

The Shangsi Festival, though not quite as prominent today, occurs on the third day of the third month (often in April) when warm breezes blow away the cold, wintry air and life can bloom again. In ancient times, houses would open and everybody would head to meet by the water to picnic and pluck orchids. Fresh love between young men and women was essentially inevitable.

Other than the three fully acknowledged Valentine’s Days, the Chinese also have invented other holidays related to love simply because the dates look or sound meaningful. For example, November 11, which is 11.11, is widely known as Single’s Day and an ideal day for lonely hearts to find their match; May 20, or 5.20, has been dubbed “confession of love day” due to the pronunciation of the date that sounds like “I love you” in Mandarin.

These fake Valentine’s Days could never be as prevailing without the continuous promotion from movies or commercials and other advertisement on TV, social media, billboards and the Internet. To please all your needy Chinese girlfriends, expats should take these dates seriously and try not to miss any one of them. Or else…