This third print in Wörlitz Palace, this time pasted high above a mirror between two windows, depicts the story of the Weaving Maid Zhinü 織⼥ and the Herdboy Niulang 牛郎. It is an old and famous love story which has made many appearances in Chinese art.
The story is based on the stars Vega and Altair. Both are among the top 12 brightest stars in the night sky. On the 7th day of the 7th month in the Chinese lunar calendar, Vega and Altair reach their highest point in the sky, being directly overhead around midnight.
Initially, Niulang (represented by Altair) was of humble, earthly descent, an honest and kind-hearted herdboy. As a child, he was expelled from his home by his sister-in-law after his parents died, and he lived by himself, herding cattle and farming. In contrast, Zhinü (Vega) was a Heavenly Maiden. According to popular belief she was the grand-daughter of Yuhuang Dadi 玉皇大帝, the Jade Emperor, and Xi Wangmu ⻄王母, Queen Mother of the West, and accordingly Zhinü is a Xian 仙, a Daoist Immortal. Once upon a time Zhinü descended from the sky and fell in love with Niulang. They were married, very amorous and spent so much time together that they neglected their tasks.
Grandmother Xi Wangmu resented the fact that Zhinü had left Heaven and married a herdboy, and she punished and separated the two lovers by drawing her jade hairpin across the sky, forming the Milky Way. The punishment also stipulated that they could only meet once a year. It was originally to be once a month but the forgetful magpie relaying the message got confused. Their meeting was to be on the seventh day of the seventh month, qixi 七夕. Zhinü’s and Niulang’s loyal love had touched every magpie (the bird of joy and happiness) and each year thousands of them come together on this day to form a bridge over the Milky Way thus enabling the two lovers to meet.
This day is also known as the Qiqiaojie 乞巧节 Festival. Qiqiao means Pray to Zhinü in order to master the skills of nügong ⼥工 — embroidery, sewing, knitting and weaving fabric. In traditional culture, women who mastered nügong were regarded as both superior and exceptional. So, on the night of the Qiqiao Festival, women prayed eagerly to the star Vega to receive nügong skills.
Another tradition relating to this day was that young girls threaded needles in the dark and asked Zhinü for nügong skills to become accomplished embroiderers and weavers.
The seventh day of the seventh month was also the day when a good house- wife cleaned the house, airing clothes and books in the courtyard. This day was guaranteed to be free from sun, which could damage the clothes or books, the sun hidden by the thick cloud of magpies forming the bridge and concealing the lovers’ happy meeting. A rain falling that night was the tears of the couple separating for another year.
In the print we see Niulang as a young boy, standing by his ox with a flute, which could also be used as a whip, tucked into the back of his belt. He holds his straw hat and looks at Zhinü who floats on a cloud, preparing to return to her heavenly domain. She holds a fuchen 拂塵, a dust whisk, and a branch of leaves in her hands. The dust whisk signifies swishing away worldly problems. Zhinü has a high tied-up hairdo in a style worn by Daoist nuns, a long ribbon, taozi 縧子, around her arms, a ruqun 襦裙, long skirt with a coat, and around her waist is wrapped a cloth made of leaves, also of Daoist origin, tied with a long belt. Between them flutter the magpies who form the bridge over which they can cross the Milky Way which separates them.
Besides conveying eternal love, the print illustrates the moment the lovers part after their yearly meeting: the boy prepares to throw his hat as a memento to the maiden who, in her turn, sweeps away with her dust whisk the sadness of separation.
The Wörlitz print is to be compared with a similar print in my collection.
Here Niulang is seated on his ox and has just thrown his hat to Zhinü (compare with the Wörlitz print where he prepares to throw it). Many details are the same in the two prints: the shading of the ox’s back with white spots, hairs on legs and head, shoes, style of the hat, flute on the back, the eye-contact between the actors, the floating cloud, etc. etc. Zhinü is also similarly depicted in the two prints. Her dress is similar, the cloth made of leaves tied with a long belt around the waist, the dust whisk, etc. Instead of the branch our Zhinü holds a peach, the symbol of long life. The backdrop to the scene in both prints is a landscape with a dead tree and a waterfall, skilfully and artistically depicted.
Both prints are printed in black and hand-coloured, and measure c. 100×60 cm. The style and execution is in imitation of western copper engravings, with hatched lines and shading.
Another example of my print, somewhat faded and rubbed, is on the wall of the Chinesisches Zimmer (Chinese Room) at Schloss Lichtenwalde in Germany. This room contains 34 paintings and woodblock prints predominantly of female figures. The palace was built in the 1720s and the Chinese Room finished between 1739 and 1750, as confirmed by recent research on the wooden frames holding the prints and paintings in place. [Anke Scharrahs, Internal report – Restauratorische Befunduntersuchung Chinesisches Zimmer, Schloß Lichtenwalde, 2012.]
This gives us a welcome ‘latest date’ for this kind of print used as wallpapers in Europe, and a yardstick by which to date other similar prints, namely the early Qianlong reign.
Similarities between these two prints indicate that a certain common tradition existed in the depiction of the two lovers and their attributes (dust whisk, flute, etc), a tradition that continued throughout the Qianlong reign and lived on into the Jiaqing reign as evidenced by this final print.