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Monday, August 28 marked this year"s Qixi Festival, a traditional celebration which has recently come to be known as "Chinese Valentine"s Day".
Unsurprisingly, in an increasingly commercialized metropolis like Shanghai, Qixi - which falls on the 7th day of the 7th month according to the lunar calendar - is today little more than an excuse to flog overpriced chocolates, roses, jewelry and other tat. Sadly, many of our other traditional festivals and customs are slowly going the same way.
Mexican expat Yonanetl Zavala Cadena attends the Qixi celebrations near Yuyuan Garden. Photos: Yang Hui/GT
A star occasion for women everywhere
Fortunately, there are still a number of cultural enthusiasts in the city who are fighting to preserve and promote some of these lesser-known festival customs. Last Sunday evening, a group organized a Qixi-themed event in a teahouse near Yuyuan Garden on the eve of the actual festival. There, they invited locals and expats alike to try on traditional Chinese costumes and to experience authentic Qixi celebratory customs.
Thai native Budsayapan Lertanunvorakul attempts the needle threading game.
Love is in the air? Not quite
If you were to randomly ask 10 local people in the street what they understood by Qixi Festival, you can guarantee at least nine would explain it as the Chinese equivalent of Valentine"s Day.
However, this idea of a "Chinese Valentine"s Day" is really nothing more than a marketing gimmick that has been heavily promoted in recent years simply to increase consumer spending. "In fact, China has no traditional festival similar to the Western Valentine"s Day," said Wu Juanya, co-organizer of Sunday"s Qixi event and founder of a traditional culture group called Hanfuxinzhi. "In ancient times, Qixi was more like a party occasion for women to get together and have fun."
To combat this misperception, Wu decided to hold a "real" Qixi celebration. Cooperating with a Chinese-style teahouse named Chatting, she arranged a series of folk custom activities to be held in the teahouse and which were all popular during festivals in ancient China.
Some 30 women participated in the celebration, including two foreigners respectively from Thailand and Mexico. Dressed in traditional Chinese costume - hanfu - as well as authentic historical makeup and hairstyles, the women recreated a scene that resembled a trip back in time.
Some 30 women participate in the celebration.
Douqiao and Vega Worshipping
The Douqiao match and the Vega worshipping ceremony are the two main parts of Qixi celebrations.
Douqiao - literally "skills competition" - features several needlework games such as needle threading and fan painting. "In ancient times, women liked to show off their needlework skills on this day by performing well in douqiao games," Wu explained. And since those with good needlework skills were usually thought to make better wives, many unmarried girls regarded douqiao as a good opportunity to show themselves off.
Needle threading, for example, is one of the most difficult
games. Instead of simply putting thread through the eye of a needle, one has to win the game by putting the same thread consecutively through seven needles within three minutes. This is no easy task for many contemporary women unfamiliar with needlework.
However, the two overseas participants both managed the task. At Sunday"s douqiao match, Mexican-born Yonanetl Zavala Cadena successfully threaded seven needles in only two minutes. "You must be very careful and patient," she said.
Cadena has been in China for eight years but Qixi Festival was still new to her. "It"s the first time I"ve participated in a traditional Chinese festival event like this," she told the Global Times. "Chatting and playing feminine games with other girls is quite relaxing, and I enjoyed it very much."
Thai native Budsayapan Lertanunvorakul also said she had a wonderful time. Having worked in Shanghai for four years, she had heard of Qixi Festival before but knew little about it. "Today I tried on traditional Chinese clothes and experienced many interesting games," she said. "Now I have a clearer idea of what this festival is all about."
The Vega worshipping ceremony also plays an important role in Qixi celebrations. In the past, the festival was a time for women to pray to the Vega star (the brightest star in the constellation of Lyra) for intelligence, good luck and better needlework skills. Unfortunately, the worshipping ceremony is rarely enacted nowadays as few people have little interest in such old customs.
Regardless, Wu was determined to arrange such an authentic Vega worshipping event and after nightfall on Sunday, the women lined up in front of a wooden table on which they neatly placed cookies, jewelry items and a painting of a beautiful woman. "The woman is Zhinü, the goddess of the Vega star," Wu added.
In turn, the participants each saluted the image of Zhinü, prayed to the Vega star and selected a small piece of cookie to eat. "We are doing what our ancestors liked to do during this festival thousands of years ago," said 18-year-old He Jiaying. "It"s really fun."
Zhang Lei, the event co-organizer and Chatting teahouse manager, said that she hopes more people will participate in traditional events like this in the future, especially youngsters. "I believe that they will become interested in and fond of our precious culture and folk costumes by experiencing them in person," she said.
A participant prays to the Vega star.
A participant draws on a fan.