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Cultural Differences Between China and the West on Valentine’s Day

February 14, 2020

From boxes of chocolate to blooming bouquets, February 14 in the United States and other Western countries is the picture of modern romance. But have you ever thought about what Valentine’s Day is like in China? This Eastern celebration of love, commonly referred to as the Qixi Festival, is rooted in traditional gifts, cultural foods and incredible festivities.

Explore the differences between two cultures’ celebrations of this classic romantic holiday.

The Traditional Story

Each culture has its own Valentine’s Day origin tale:

  • The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl: The Qixi Festival originates from a 2,600-year-old Chinese story. Niulang, the cowherd, and Zhinü, the weaver girl, shared a forbidden love. A star in the galaxy represents each. As a result of their forbidden romance, they were sent to opposite sides of a holy river, which symbolizes the Milky Way. Once per year, a flock of magpies builds a bridge to unite the duo. 
  • St. Valentine’s Day: In the third century, Roman Emperor Claudius II prohibited his army from marriage. He believed that men without partners made better warriors. St. Valentine, a priest, decided to defy these orders and continued to wed couples. Claudius put St. Valentine to death for these actions. Years later, Catholics used the Roman Lupercalia festival to honor him.

While variations on each tale exist, both serve as the core basis for their culture’s celebration of what we now know as Valentine’s Day.

The Dates

It’s worth noting that Chinese people don’t observe the Qixi Festival on February 14. Instead, it falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar. They use this day because Zhinü is the seventh daughter of the Goddess of Heaven. In 2020, the Qixi Festival will happen on August 25. 

As stated in the traditional tale, Westerners acknowledge February 14 as Valentine’s Day. This date is when St. Valentine is known to have died. Though there are a few accounts of this story, most historians agree that this date is accurate.

The Food

Typically, there are several types of sweet and savory treats people enjoy during the Qixi Festival. These include dumplings, noodles, pastries, rice sticks and teas. Most have a significant meaning — for example, chicken symbolizes the rooster in the traditional Chinese tale. If he can’t declare a new day for the lovers, they’ll stay together forever. So, if the rooster isn’t alive, he’s unable to break them apart.

In the West, people don’t usually eat traditional foods. But chocolates and wines are standard, as are cakes and cupcakes. When it comes to the main course, the fancier the meals are, the better. Many also like to use food coloring to dye their dishes shades of red and pink. Heart-shaped cookies are also popular.

The Celebration

Valentine’s Day in China is somewhat similar to its Western counterpart. People still exchange gifts, like flowers and jewelry, with their loved ones. But traditionally, there are many cultural aspects as well. Young girls like to go to temples and pray to Zhinü for wisdom. Newlyweds take this day to ask for knowledge in navigating this next step in their relationship. 

In America, Canada and the United Kingdom, couples present each other with cards and other tokens of their affection. Many go on romantic dates, like expensive dinner outings. Single men and women like to celebrate with their close friends. Galentine’s Day, which happens the eve of Valentine’s Day, is a way for friend groups to show platonic love for one another, and other spinoff traditions are on the rise.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Whether you’re learning about Chinese culture in your classes or studying abroad, send out a little love around the world this Valentine’s Day. 

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