Most fairy tales end when the hero and heroine marry and live happily ever after. This ancient Chinese myth does not stop on the wedding day. It tells the tale of a cowherd who looks after an old Ox. The Ox is semi-devine. He is a star who is spending some time of Earth. He decides to help the boy to marry one of the weaving maidens who blow the clouds through the sky – but the Queen of Heaven is not pleased by this plan.
The tale is recalled every year in August on the Chinese festival known as The Double Seventh. It is a holiday a little like Valentine’s day that celebrates romantic love.
Read by Natasha. Adapted for Storynory by Bertie.
Proofread by Claire Deakin.
The cowherd and the weaving maid
Hello, this is Natasha, and this is an ancient fairy tale from China. In China it is the story behind a holiday called the Double Seventh. It is a festival that is a little like Valentine’s day, because it celebrates romantic love. As you will hear the story is very romantic.
A long time ago, there lived a poor cowherd. His parents had died and he lived with his brother and his sister-in-law. His only relatives were cruel to him and one day they drove him out of the house. A farmer took pity on the homeless boy, and offered him a daily meal and a bed of straw in the cowshed. In return, the boy would look after the farmer’s old ox. From then on, the boy spent his days and nights with the animal. In fact, the beast was his only companion. Despite his great age, the ox was a handsome creature. His golden hair shone in the moonlight. The boy knew in his heart that his friend had something heavenly about him.
One day, when they were out on the hills, the Ox turned his great head to the boy and spoke to him clearly in an almost human voice.
“Boy,” he lowed, “You are my friend and have looked after me faithfully. Now I am old, and soon I will die. My time on earth is done. I will return to my place in the heavens where I am the the chief star in the constellation of the Ox. Before I go, I wish to see you married.”
The poor lad did not know how to reply. He knew not a single girl, let alone one that would marry him. The Ox saw how perplexed he looked, and said, “Listen carefully to me, for this is what you must do. Today is is the seventh of the month. This very night, the seven weaving maidens of the skies will float down to the river to take a bath. You will see their clothes by the bank. The seventh daughter wears robes of red. Sneak down quietly to the bank and steal her clothes. In this way, you will get to know her, for she will call out and demand the return of the robes.”
The boy sighed, for the river was far away on the other side of the mountain. He would not be able to reach its banks before nightfall. The celestial Ox again saw that the boy was at a loss – but he had an answer for this problem too: He told the cowherd to climb on his back. Then off they flew through the skies to the river.
When they arrived, the boy stepped down from his friend’s back, and swiftly hid behind a jade tree. Towards midnight, he heard splashing and giggling. He peeped around the tree and saw the maidens swimming and playing in the water. While they were having fun, he crawled stealthily forward and pinched the red robe of the seventh daughter of the skies.
When the weaving maidens had finished washing and frolicking they came out onto the bank. But where were the red robes of the seventh daughter of the skies? They knew right away that somebody must have stolen them. The girl without clothes hid behind a bush to cover her modesty. Her sisters called, “Come out whoever you are. It is not wise to play pranks on the immortals. Our father is the Jade Emperor and the ruler of all Heaven. He knows how to punish naughty human folk.”
The boy saw the funny side of the situation and felt bold. He stepped forward holding the red robes before his eyes. He called out, “Lovely maiden, Seventh Daughter of the Skies, promise to be my wife and I will return these clothes to you.”
It was such a cheeky proposal that the weaving maidens could not help but laugh. The seventh daughter who was hiding behind the bush was furious – but in a way, she was impressed too by this brazen boy. She had to admit, he was not bad looking, for a human. There was something about him.
Her eldest sister said, “Listen to the lad. You are not able to fly away without your robes. If you do not agree to his demand, we must leave you here.”
“Throw the robes over here and I will think about it,” said the maiden from behind the bush.
The boy threw the robes. “Now will you marry me?” He demanded.
“I’ll let you know,” she replied.
Her sisters gasped and giggled. “Don’t miss your chance,” said the eldest. “I bet a good looking lad like him has plenty of offers. It’s not every day that a maiden of the skies gets a proposal. Think about it. How often does a man want to marry a cloud?”
So the maiden, now fully clothed in her red robes, stepped out from the bush. She held out her lovely hand. The boy knelt and kissed it. She agreed to be his wife.
Her sisters flew away to the skies where they continued as usual to flit across the heavens in the form of fluffy clouds. By contrast, the lovely the seventh maiden lived on earth with the cowherd. She took the shape of a most beautiful woman. From that day on, the boy’s fortunes prospered. The farmer adopted him as his son and gave him a wedding gift of land and live stock. His mean brother and sister-in-law could only look on enviously at his prosperity. The cowherd lived happily with his heavenly wife, and three years later they had twins – a beautiful boy and girl. The only sadness in their lives was that the dear old Ox had passed away. They had a comfort in that they could look up at the sky and see him twinkling in the sky at night.
Up in the heavens, the passing of three years is like three days to the gods. The heavenly mother began to notice that the dawn and the evening clouds had lost their rosy tint. She realised that the seventh weaving maiden, she of the red robes, had gone missing. She scanned the earth with her all-seeing eye, and spotted the happy couple living in a humble hovel.
“That is not fit for a divine maiden!” She shouted. The whole sky was then filled with a terrible thunder storm. Mad with fury, she sent her heavenly solders to the farmhouse. They delivered the queens’s message to her daughter. She must return to the skies, or face the destruction of her family and children. With great sadness, she had no choice. She had to go back to heaven. The soldiers escorted her, leaving her wailing children and husband behind.
For the first time since the night at the river, the cowherd was in despair and did not know what to do. He looked up into the heavens and saw the twinkling star of his friend the ox. Then he remembered that when the mortal form of the ox had died, he had kept his hide. He took the ox skin down from the wall, and spread it out on the floor like a carpet. When he sat down on it, the hide began to fly, and it lifted him up to the heavens and swept him away to the palace of the Jade Emperor who rules all heaven and earth. There he found himself in front of the throne of the heavenly mother.
The cowherd fell down on his knees and prayed, “Oh, Queen of heaven, I have come to reclaim my wife. I married her lawfully and she must live with me as long as she loves me as I love her.”
But the queen flew into a fury. “How dare you, a mere mortal, a cowherd to boot, marry my daughter through trickery, and then follow us up to heaven and make your insolent demand!”
The boy trembled, thinking that his last moment had come. The queen reached up to her headdress, and pulled out a silver hairpin. She cast it across the heavens. It scattered silver across the skies, spreading stardust in its wake.
In the West we know the result as the milky way. In China they call it the Silver River. Now the cowherd and the seventh weaving maiden stand on either side of the river and gaze all year long at each other. But on their anniversary, the festival of the seventh of the seventh, even the hard heart of the queen of heaven relents. A magical bridge appears across the silver river, and for one day and night, the cowherd and his heavenly wife can meet and embrace.
And that was the story of The Cowherd and the Weaving Maid. I do hope you enjoyed it. Bertie says that some of his favourite stories on Storynory can be found under in the section called World Fairy Tales. There you will find some of our most spiritual and romantic stories, such as the First Strawberries which is a touching and romantic tale from North America. You can might also enjoy some of my favourites, such as The Samurai and the Tea master, The Old Man and the Figs, The Blind Man’s Daughter, and The Desolate Island. In short, there are hundreds of wonderful and free audio stories which you can listen to on Storynory.com.