The seven Sisters festival is still celebrated in some parts of Dongguan. In the past women put handcrafted scenes on display in hopes of finding a good husband. Celebrations have changed, but the festival is still alive.
You probably never heard of the Seven Sisters Festival, but you are certainly aware of the multiple Valentine’s Days in China by now. This traditionally celebrated occasion is honored with such fame due to the widely known romantic tragedy of Niulang and Zhinü. It is said that this couple was only allowed to meet once a year on this day, the seventh day of the seventh month in the Chinese calendar (usually in August), which is known as Qixi Festival, or Qiqiao Festival, or Seven Sisters Festival as the locals call it.
But what is the festival all about? Who were the Seven Sisters?
An estimated 200 years ago, girls had no chance to meet men on their own accord and men couldn’t just ask their beloved for a romantic dinner. All girls could do before getting married was to develop excellent handcrafting skills and hope their fathers did not sell them for crops. The Seven Sisters are believed to be seven fairies with incredible weaving skills that every woman in the old times dreamed of being. Zhinü was one of them, but she was a bit of a rebel. She ran away from boring weaving jobs in the heavens and fell in love with Niulang in the mortal world.
On the day that is dedicated to these ladies, unmarried women offer exquisitely crafted tributes to them, begging for better knitting skills and of course, a good husband. This tradition was popular among Dongguan’s waterfront towns such as Wangniudun, Daojiao and Zhongtang. Some of them still keep it today.
All girls could do before getting married was to develop excellent handcrafting skills and hope their fathers did not sell them for crops.
The Qixi tribute table from Wangniudun stands out from all the other towns and made it on the list of Provincial Intangible Cultural Heritages. Instead of laying out common tributes such as fruits, meats and paper decorations, girls from Wangniudun dramatically use everything they can find to make flowers, auspicious foods and even scenes.
For example, rice, corn and red and green beans are made into seven flowers and seven fruits for the Seven Sisters. Pistachio shells are dyed and turned into wintersweet petals and rice, chrysanthemums and onion peels become delicate lotus flowers. Along with the tributes, the table also displays the reunion scene of Niulang and Zhinü on the magpie bridge. This is just one display example of this festival. You won’t notice its marvel until you take a closer look. It takes tremendous patience and creativity to make such a splendid table. You wouldn’t believe they all come from the hands of ordinary housewives in Wangniudun.
Traditionally, on the eve of Seven Sisters Festival, after cleaning themselves and putting on new clothes, the women displayed tribute tables in their houses, worshipping and burning joss papers. In the village’s ancestral hall, a bigger tribute table was presented, and more sophisticated rituals were held. The next day, towels which were blessed the night before are distributed to all the ladies in the village. They bathed themselves on this day because it was believed that the Seven Sisters water was good for their health.
Nowadays, Wangniudun holds a grand competition of tribute tables every year and the makers are not restricted to women anymore. Kids, seniors, men and women take part to show their handcrafting skills and imagination. Many themes reflect the modern rural life and recycled materials are often used, with new technology added on.
In Guancheng where I grew up, Seven Sisters Festival was one of the few occasions I sincerely looked forward to throughout the year because I could wear new clothes, stay up late and most importantly, shovel all the delicious offerings into my belly. Though none of us in the family could conjure a fancy tribute table, my mom always piled it up with a little bit of everything. She must have really wanted me to find a good husband.