4 min read.
The 25th of August 2020, or seventh day of the seventh month on the traditional lunar calendar, marks the annual Qixi Festival (七夕), commonly known as the Chinese Valentine’s Day. This date is of special significance to the Chinese as it celebrates an endearing 2000 year-old fairy originating from the Han Dynasty. Throughout the years, the ways in which the Chinese celebrate Qixi have evolved significantly, featuring a mix of traditional festivities rooted in mythology and modern celebrations resembling that of the Western Valentine’s Day. This article delves into the history and norms of Qixi Festival and gives us a deeper look into the different facets of the famous Chinese Valentine’s Day. We will also be comparing two relevant luxury brand campaigns that will be rolling out during this festive period.
A Brief History on Qixi
The legend behind Qixi follows Niulang and Zhinü, a cow herder in the mortal world and a goddess renowned for her weaving skills respectively. On a visit to the mortal world, Zhinü met Niulang and the two fell in love. Soon after, they got married and had two children. When Zhinü’s mother, the Queen of Heaven, found out about their union, she was extremely angry and banished Zhinü back to heaven.
Niulang was heartbroken. However, an old cow which Niulang had once rescued informed him that he was actually a god who was injured in the mortal world. The old cow also offered his skin to Niulang when it died, saying that the leather could be used to make shoes that could fly Niulang to heaven to be reunited with Zhinü.
With a renewed sense of hope, Niulang attempted to find Zhinü along with their two children after the old cow had died. However, Zhinü’s mother had created a river of stars – the Milky Way – to separate the two lovers. Niulang and Zhinü were so devastated that they wept for ages. Thousands of magpies heard their cries and were so touched that they agreed to come together and form a bridge over the river for the couple to reunite. Eventually, Zhinü’s mother relented and agreed to let Zhinü meet Niulang on the bridge, but only on the seventh night of the seventh month of each year on the lunar calendar. This day of reunion between the two lovers then marks the annual Qixi Festival.
Traditional Qixi Celebrations
Needle Threading Competitions: In ancient China, needlework was viewed as a desired quality in a good spouse. Competitions would be held among groups of unmarried women to determine who could thread a special nine-hole needle the fastest. Those who successfully thread the needle in one try are said to be blessed with good needlework for the next year.
Worshipping Zhinü: Single women visited the temple in groups to pray to Zhinü to bless their needlework, beauty and marriage prospects. On the night of Qixi, they would also prepare a table of offerings including tea, wine, fruits, flowers and nuts, while gazing at the star Vega and praying quietly.
Celebrating the Ox: Since the ox made a tremendous sacrifice in the story of Niulang and Zhinü, it also became a celebrated figure. Children made wreaths out of wild flowers and hung them on the horns of oxen in order to honor them.
Stargazing: No Qixi would be complete without admiring the star-speckled night sky, especially with loved ones. Although the other traditional customs have largely ceased, many people still gather outside to look for the stars Vega and Altair today, which are representative of Zhinü and Niulang respectively, as well as a third star forming the symbolic bridge between the two. The story of Niulang and Zhinü is often retold to the young, allowing the folklore to be passed on from one generation to the next.
Today, Qixi is often celebrated in a similar fashion to the Western Valentine’s Day. Couples go on dates, exchange gifts like chocolates and flowers, and declare their love for each other. For brands, Qixi has also increasingly become a marketing opportunity or a chance to boost sales, especially for luxury brands. 2017 marked the year where competition between luxury brands in promoting Qixi-themed products became mainstream, especially in the digital space. In fact, Jing Daily acknowledged that Qixi stands out from other Chinese gift-giving holidays earlier in the year because “this indigenous day of love is becoming a heated battleground for promotions and marketing”. With post-COVID-19 commerce increasingly shifting online, the 2020 rendition of Qixi can be expected to kickstart with a flurry of marketing campaigns as well. While there are many types of gifts and apparels in the market, we will focus on the execution of campaigns from the luxury handbag brands Prada and Balenciaga.
Qixi x Prada’s The Modern Tale Campaign
In celebration of Qixi this year, Prada released its “The Modern Tale” campaign which cleverly features an evocative and modern film retelling of the famous Qixi legend, following the journey of a couple moving through their respective worlds to achieve an emotional reunion. Blending Prada’s futuristic vision and the ancient Chinese tale of love, this silent, dialogue-less film emphasizes the power of love in a contemporary and relatable manner solely through body language, yet it also reminds viewers of the traditional folklore on which this festival was built. According to Prada, “the stars finally align” in their short film, “allowing the lovers to meet and see their dreams come true”, exactly “like the Qixi tale of separation and the impossibility of experiencing love’s full potential”.
An exclusive range of products was also launched on Prada’s official site and its WeChat Mini Program, including a remodel of the classic nylon and Saffiano leather Prada re-edition bag in pastel shades of astrale blue, lemon yellow and primula pink, as well as a nylon cap in the same colorway. Like the short film, the re-edition bag gives the classic Prada piece an updated look, whilst retaining the original product. For selected Prada stores in China, special installations including temporary flower stations will also be set up.
Balenciaga’s Qixi-Themed Campaign
Unfortunately, not all Qixi campaigns are as well done as Prada’s. Approximately two weeks before Qixi this year, Balenciaga released four limited-edition hourglass handbags with one of four versions of Chinese characters etched onto it, namely, “我爱我” (“I love myself”), “我爱你” (“I love you”), “你爱我” (“You love me”) and “我爱他” (“I love him”). The provocative design and purportedly gaudy font used in this range sparked heated online discussions and backlash from Chinese netizens. Dubbed a “tasteless insult” by many, Balenciaga’s attempt to adorn a futuristic font that is popular among Gen Zers backfired, for it was said to mimic styles preferred by China’s rural population. The adverse reaction might have been attributed to the ongoing tensions between China and the West, which have contributed to a peak in patriotism among the Chinese and an increased sensitivity towards Western brands like Balenciaga.
Thanks to the controversy surrounding the campaign, the hashtag #BalenciagaChineseValentineCampaignTasteless (#巴黎世家七夕广告 土) quickly garnered over 210,000 discussions and 170 million views on Weibo, whereas #BalenciagaInsultsChina (#巴黎世家辱华) had over 15 million views and more than 6,000 discussions, increasing Balenciaga’s visibility in the digital space significantly.
Prada and Balenciaga are just two of many luxury brands which have tapped into the Qixi Festival as an opportunity for launching new products. Marketing campaigns aside, the Qixi Festival is ultimately a day to celebrate love and commemorate the meaningful traditional Chinese folklore. Many netizens have expressed their concerns over the aggressive marketing campaigns that have popped up in the recent years, and have urged the public to remain discerning towards marketing gimmicks. As much as consumers may adore the idea of getting their hands on yet another exclusive range of luxury items in the upcoming Qixi Festival, it is also important that they take this opportunity to extend love and appreciation towards their loved ones, even if it has to be from a safe distance this year. After all, social distancing pales in comparison to the distance of an entire galaxy between Niulang and Zhinü.