Two Stars in the Sky

The Cowherd and the Weaver - A Legend from Ancient China

Grade Levels: Pre-K - 5

Posted: August 25, 2020 | Updated: August 25, 2020
Created by: Schoolhouse by the Sea

If you look into the sky tonight, you just might see something very special. Two stars may shine with a rare, bright light. Why?

Such an old story has many versions. From generation to generation, people have told the legend of the weaver and cowherd. Their story has travelled to many countries. Though each version features new names, new adventures, and new lessons to be learned, their story remains a love story.

Would you tell your version to me, if you know it too?

Here is the story, as I have heard it.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, there lived a cowherd called Niulang (牛郎). He had but one old ox. Niulang took good care of the ox and the ox, who some say was a disgraced god, was both mischievous and loyal. One day, Niulang and the ox woke to the sounds of splashing. Following the sound, Niulang saw seven fairy goddesses swimming in the lake, but the only one he truly noticed was Zhinu (织女). She was a goddess and a celestial weaver. He was only a cowherd. But they fell in love.

Niulang and Zhinu married, though it was forbidden for a goddess to marry a mortal. They had two children, a boy and a girl, and were very happy together.

In her happiness, it is said that Zhinu neglected her work. She no longer wove the bright and colorful clouds with the same skill and attention. This brought the attention, and then the rage, of the Jade Emperor and her mother, the Celestial Goddess. She separated Niulang from Zhinu, returning him and their children to Earth. Niulang was so sad, that his loyal ox made him an offer: if, after the ox’s death, Niulang would wear his hide, he could go up to the stars to see his wife. The ox immediately breathed his last breath and, with many tears, Niulang did as he had said. When he had skinned the ox and donned its hide, Niulang and his children were reunited with Zhinu in the heavens.

However, the Celestial Goddess soon discovered that she had been disobeyed. She turned them into stars and sent them to opposite sides of the galaxy. She then used her hairpin to scratch an uncrossable, wide river in the sky to separate them forever. Today, we can look up at the sky and see that River. In the West, we call it the Milky Way.

Zhinu still lives on one side of the river, sadly weaving her colorful clouds and missing her family. When we look up at the sky, we can see her star. In the West, we call the star Vega.

Just like Zhinu, Niulang and their children also spend their time looking across the river and missing the days when they were all together. We can look up at the night sky and see them, too. Niulang is the star we call Altair. Their children are nearby, called β and γ Aquilae in the West. See if you can find them tonight!

Once a year, their stars move closer together. The longing becomes unbearable! It is said that the magpies of the world feel this longing and take pity on the lovers. They fly to the heavens and form a bridge across the river. This bridge of magpies is called Que Qiao (鵲橋). By crossing to its center, Niulang and Zhinu and their children can finally reunite— but only for one night.

Look up at the sky tonight. Can you see them? Can you feel their joy? Can you feel their longing?