The Qixi Festival – sometimes referred to as the Chinese Valentine’s Day – takes place on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, which falls on August 17 this year.

You may have heard of the star-crossed lovers from the Qixi Festival – Niulang, whose name means “cowherd”, and Zhinu, or “weaver girl”, and how they fell in love but were banned from seeing each because of opposition from the girl’s family. But are you familiar with all the juicy details?

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How did the lovers meet?

When Niulang was banished from his home by his brother and his sister-in-law, he was left with an old ox which turned out to be the fallen Taurus. Under the ox’s guidance, he found a group of fairies bathing in a lake and hid the clothes belonging to one. The owner of the dress was, of course, Zhinu.

She chased after him, and a few chats later, they fell in love, married and had a son and daughter.

Some versions of the story say that Zhinu was forced to marry him because he saw her naked. Either way, this was quite a dramatic first encounter.

What was the Milky Way – the one that separates the lovers – made from? (Hint: it has nothing to do with the Big Bang!)

It was the silver hairpin of Xiwangmu, often referred to as the Queen Mother of the West. Mother of Zhinu and the Goddess of Heaven, she was not a big fan of giving her daughter away to a mortal and, in a fit of rage and to stop the young lovebirds from meeting, hurled her hairpin into the sky which turned into a silver river of stars.

Why can the lovers only meet once a year?

Moved by the pair’s strong love, thousands of magpies gathered to form a bridge so they could meet at the centre. Zhinu’s parents eventually gave in and allowed their annual gathering.

The cultural connotation of the magpie bridge even extends to China’s aerospace technology. In May this year, China launched a relay satellite called Queqiao – “magpie bridge”, in Chinese – to the dark side of the moon shielded from Earth’s view. The satellite will serve as the relay link to control during future missions to the moon.

Qixi is also referred to as Qiqiao Festival (‘festival to beg for dexterity’). Why?

Zhinu was a talented weaver who was responsible for weaving fairies’ clothes and colourful clouds in Heaven before she eloped with her lover. Women therefore pray to her for skilful hands at the festival as good needlework was considered to be a trait of a good wife in the past.

Traditionally, girls would make ornaments with five-coloured sewing threads to show off their nimbleness, and put out fruits for worship.

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How far apart are the lovers, astronomically speaking?

According to the legend, Niulang and Zhinu rose to become stars in the end, which are now recognised as Altair and Vega respectively. In the past, girls would fixedly look up to the night sky to catch a glimpse of the two stars meeting. These two stars, which form the vertices of the Summer Triangle along with Deneb, are clearly visible during summer from places in the mid-northern latitudes.

In reality, however, Sina News has reported that Altair and Vega are separated by roughly 16 light years – meaning that if Niulang blows a kiss on Altair, it will take 16 years for Zhinu to see it on Vega.

How is the festival celebrated in different parts of the world?

In China, where it all began, people would eat traditional qiaoguo, a kind of fried pastry made from flour and sugar, and moulded into shapes of fruits or fishes. Other traditions such as incense burning, needlework competitions and offerings to Zhinu are observed in various parts of China.

The festival is called Tanabata in Japan, where it falls on July 7. Enormous colourful streamers can be seen around the country and carnivals are held. The most famous one is the Sendai Tanabata festival, held in the Sendai region, whose gaudy festive decorations recall traditional Japanese aesthetics. The festival often ends with a firework display in August.

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Chilseok, in Korea, shares the date, name and gist of the story of Qixi with China. Traditionally, women would place a bowl of well water on top of earthenware urns to pray for good health and wellness for their families. Common festive foods include wheat pancakes, steamed rick cakes and dishes made of pumpkins as they flourish during this period.

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