Enduring traditions, included in list of national intangible cultural heritage, stretch back centuries
Chocolates and shopping sprees aside, lovers across the country last week celebrated the Qixi Festival, or Chinese Valentine's Day, in the traditional way as well as with romantic photography.
The festival was listed in 2006 as national intangible cultural heritage - activities and practices, like Chinese calligraphy, often using ephemeral materials and techniques and deemed worthy of protection and preservation.
Some 77 couples from China and abroad participate in a traditional Tang Dynasty (618-907) wedding ceremony in Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi province, during the Qixi Festival, which fell on Aug 17 this year. Yuan Jingzhi / For China Daily
Falling on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month on the Chinese calendar, the time-honored event originates from a venerated legend about a couple that is more than 2,000 years old.
According to tradition, Niulang and Zhinyu, one a cowherd and the other a weaver fairy, were lovers but their passion was not allowed and they were banished by the gods to opposite sides of the Silver River, symbolizing the Milky Way.
Once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, a flock of magpies would form a bridge to reunite the celestial couple for one day.
The festival has been an important day for young women in China for centuries. They often go to temples to pray to Zhinyu - the fairy who possessed intelligence and ingenuity - for wisdom and dexterity in needlework, a traditional skill for a good wife, as well as a happy marriage.
In northwestern Gansu province, rituals for Qixi start on the first day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar.
The seven-day long ritual consists of seven procedures and 12 ceremonies. Celebrated for hundreds of years, the events attract at least 500,000 local participants every year.
Jiang Siqi, 16, was responsible for this year's welcoming ceremony of Zhinyu, or the Weaver Maid.
Jiang made preparations for the ceremony last month, with more than 30 other girls in Xihe county, in the city of Longnan. They bought costumes, organized rehearsals and prepared food.
The welcoming ceremony was held on the last day of the sixth month of the lunar calendar, as the following day refers to a day that heaven's gate will open.
Young girls carried a one-meter-high paper Weaver Maid statue from the edge of a lake and "invited" her to their homes. They burned incense and bowed to the fairy in prayer.
"I learned the customs from my grandmother and mother. The tradition has been passed down for generations," Jiang said. She has participated in the event three times.
Jiang's school and village have also set up Qixi courses to teach them the ancient customs.
So far, the county has more than 130 intangible culture inheritors of Qixi, who have been appointed to preserve and pass on the tradition.
"I embrace every girl who wants to take part in the event and teach them how to complete the ceremonies," said Luo Shumei, a local intangible culture inheritor.
The local government has made efforts to protect the tradition over the past decade, providing funding, filming documentaries, staging performances and inviting academics from home and abroad to conduct research into Qixi culture.
Zhong Jianyun said that his Qixi gift for his wife this year might be the most impressive present he's ever given her.
Zhong is a migrant worker at a construction site in Changsha, capital of central Hunan province.
He telephoned his wife, who lives in a remote village, days before the festival and invited her to spend the festival with him in Changsha.
His wife, Deng, said she thought it would be just another ordinary day, as she never expected a romantic gesture from her husband.
Zhong finally told her that they would have a set of wedding photos taken, a day just before Qixi.
Zhong's company organized the photographic session at the construction site for its rural migrant employees. Three other couples also took part in the morning.
"She likes taking photos very much, so I applied for the free wedding photography immediately after I got the news," Zhong said.
Without ornate backgrounds used by photo studios, the four couples, wearing wedding dresses, smiled, hugged and kissed against a backdrop of cement, steel bars and unfinished buildings.
"It was such a unique scene," Deng said. "The photos we took will remind me - when I'm getting old - of the days when we were young and happy."
Peng Weibin, 39, has been married for 16 years. He and his wife hadn't taken wedding photos because of "poor economic conditions". They couldn't wait to take a selfie together after getting dressed up.
Qixi is not just a festival for young lovers. The elderly also celebrate the festival in their own way across China.
Old couples in Zhengzhou, capital of central Henan province, organized "group wedding photos".
Hundreds of elderly couples took part in a croquet competition in the city of Jiaozuo to celebrate Qixi.
In the city of Xinyu in the eastern province of Jiangxi, the elderly gathered to recall their love stories and share sweet secrets from their marriages.
In Hefei, capital of eastern Anhui province, several old couples celebrated Qixi by taking a flower arranging class organized by a local community.
"They arrived at 8 o'clock, but our class started at 9. I could feel their enthusiasm," said Wang Yan, a flower arranging teacher.
She taught her class the meanings of different flowers. "Red roses represent passionate love, and the lily represents permanent love."
With the help of the teacher, Chen Wanyan made a beautiful bouquet and gave it to his wife. "You are more stunning than the flowers," the 65-year-old told his wife Wang Zhongying. The couple planned to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary this year.
"It's very touching. We are accustomed to an ordinary life. There were no flowers or a diamond ring," Wang said. "But he made up for all of that today."