The daughter of the JADE-EMPEROR, she spends all her time spinning beautiful silk robes and lacey garments for the Heavenly Host. She also makes the finest gossamer clouds and her tapestry of the constellations is a work of art.
Her father was so pleased with ZHI-NU’s diligent work that he married her to the Heavenly Official In Charge Of Cowsheds. (That may not sound like much of a reward, but then you haven’t met him.)
The two of them fell headlong in love and pretty soon she was getting behind in her spinning duties. So they were whisked off into the sky and separated by the Milky Way. You can still see them there; she is Vega in the constellation Lyra and he is Altair in the constellation Aquila.
Now they are only allowed to meet once a year, when a flock of magpies swarm into the sky and create a bridge for them to cross. For the rest of the year they live apart and she is the Heavenly Spinster in more ways than one. This is what comes of a marriage made in Heaven.
Now some versions of this tale assert that ZHI-NU actually came down to Earth and had her clothes stolen while she bathed in a river. The culprit was NIU-LANG, a humble cowherd who was amazed at her beauty and fell instantly in love.
Without her clothes she could not return to Heaven — at least, not without some very awkward questions being asked. So she decided to marry him instead as he was sweet and gentle, and not bad looking for a mortal. Of course Heaven found out eventually, and whisked them off to the stars as before.
It doesn’t really matter which version is true. The end of this story is far more important than the beginning, as all Chinese lovers will testify. The seventh day of the seventh lunar month is when ZHI-NU and NIU-LANG cross the magpie bridge. Their stars burn brightly in the Heavens, lovers hold hands and gaze into the night sky, and Chinese Valentine’s Day begins...