The Position of the Ning Family
The mosquitos in the countryside were too powerful, one bite would cause a giant bump. Ning Ning woke up in the middle of the night due to her getting bitten by the mosquitos. She could not fall asleep again because of the loud snores from Cui Hong Mei, her eyes remained open till sunrise.
She got off the bed quietly, opened the door gently and went out. She looked at the Ning Village outside the door.
At a glance, it was a small and dainty old town.
The black tiles and white walls of Hui style buildings1, the closely connected houses, with their overhanging eaves. Although the place was small, it had everything. Walking along the narrow and slender streets would bring you past one palace graduate memorial arch and two chastity archways2 before it finally ended at the ancestral hall.
The palace graduate memorial arch and the chastity archways had been eroded by the wind and rain, only the ancestral hall in front of her was decorated with lanterns and festoons. It was in full swing as a group of people were bustling in front of the door, a wooden stage was built up from the ground with their hands, the old village chief was directing them. Suddenly, someone pointed in Ning Ning’s direction. He turned back and smiled. “Ah, daughter of the Ning family, why have you come?”
“…I came out to buy breakfast.” Ning Ning came up with a random excuse, then looked at the stage in front of her and asked, “What’s this for?”
“We’re setting up a stage for a performance.” The old village chief said while grinning from ear to ear, his smile made Ning Ning uncomfortable.
“When will the stage be ready?” Ning Ning feigned interest, “Whom did you invite to perform?”
“How can we invite an outsider to perform in a performance meant for our ancestors?” The old village chief shook his head. “A Nuo dance performance, we will perform and sing it ourselves.”
He looked up at Ning Ning with a weird smile all of a sudden. “You are one of us, you have to perform as well.”
Ning Ning was taken aback.
“…Ning Ning!” Ning Yu Ren’s voice suddenly rang out behind her. She looked back and saw Mama walking quickly towards her, her forehead was slightly perspiring, it seemed that she had run all the way here.
Ning Yu Ren pulled Ning Ning behind her, she was like a mother hen protecting her chick, she cautiously and carefully said to the old village chief, “My surname is Ning too, I will perform this time.”
The old village chief shook his head. “A daughter that is married off, a water that is poured out…”
“I only gave birth to a daughter, I didn’t marry anyone.” Ning Yu Ren interrupted him rather stubbornly.
Ning Ning looked at the old village chief, then at Mama.
It was a scene she had never seen before.
Although she had also followed them to the country last time, she kept her bad habit she got from the city, lazing in bed even at eight or nine in the morning. After she got up, Mama would have already been done with making breakfast. While they had breakfast, Mama casually said, “I want to perform the Nuo dance in the ancestor worship ceremony in a month’s time.”
Ning Ning had wanted to stay together with Mama for a month, but she was a spoiled kid, she could not stand the mosquitos from the country, neither could she stand the boring life of a little village, so she made fuss about wanting to go home. Ning Yu did not seem to want her to stay long as well, she very quickly got someone to drive over and took her away from the village.
What happened afterwards, Ning Ning did not know.
Indeed, the person who had come to fetch her seemed to be…
“What do you say?” The old village chief interrupted Ning Ning’s thoughts, he stared into Ning Ning’s eyes and asked, “Do you want your mama to take your place?”
Ning Ning’s thoughts stirred.
The phrase “take someone’s place” made people feel a little uneasy.
Ning Yu Ren subtly tugged her clothes from the back, but Ning Ning pretended not to notice. She said to the old village chief in a naive and innocent manner, “But I’ve never danced the Nuo dance before, in just a month…will it work?”
“The others wouldn’t be able to make it work, but you would be able to!” Seeing that she was open to the suggestion, the old village chief was overjoyed at the unexpected good news. “Why, the Ning family’s role in the Nuo dance has always been…”
“Stop.” Ning Yu Ren suddenly shouted. Seeing that everyone put down what they were doing and looked at her, she smiled awkwardly as she grabbed Ning Ning’s arm and said, “The two of us will talk about this, we’ll give you a definite answer later.”
Once she finished speaking, she pulled Ning Ning and walked back hurriedly, the villagers they met along the way greeted her passionately.
“Ah, daughter of the Ning family, you’re out so early, have you eaten?”
“Daughter of the Ning family, come eat at my place if you have not eaten, I’ve just made crock pot soup.”
“Come over to my place, daughter of the Ning family, I’ll serve you noodles with free range eggs, you can have as much as you want.”
Daughter of the Ning family, daughter of the Ning family, Mama was a daughter of the Ning family, she was also a daughter of the Ning family, so who were they calling out to?
Because she had been living under her mother’s radiance, so the Ning Ning from the past thought that the passion from the villagers were directed at Ning Yu Ren.
But now, she realised that they had all been looking past Ning Yu Ren and focusing on her.
The wooden door was shut tightly, it locked all of the villagers’ gazes outside.
The white mosquito net rustled, Cui Hong Mei who was on the bed turned around and continued to snore.
“…Mama,” Ning Ning caught her breath and asked, “what exactly did the Ning family do?”
“Don’t ask.” Ning Yu Ren said stiffly.
“If you don’t tell me, I’ll ask someone else later.” Ning Ning said, “For example, the village chief, he would definitely be willing to tell me.”
“…It’s best that you don’t listen to him.” Ning Yu Ren furrowed her brows. Seeing that Ning Ning looked at her stubbornly, she sighed helplessly. She pulled Ning Ning to the table and sat her down. Ning Yu Ren poured two cups of tea from the teapot, picked one up and took a sip, then said blandly, “Nuo dance, without the mask you are a mortal, with a mask you are a god. It’s a sacrificial dance, it differs from one place to another. In this village, it has been around for a very long time, you can trace it back to the Song Ming era…”
She took another sip from the cup and continued speaking, “Ning Family’s position in this Nuo dance is to be the god.”
“What do you mean by god? It’s clearly a ghost.”
Both Ning Ning and Ning Yu Ren looked towards the voice, they saw that grandmother on the bed was already awake. She was lying on her side in the net, yawning as she told them, “Damn it, can’t you two talk outside? I can’t sleep with all the noise.”
Ning Yu Ren and Ning Ning looked at each other. She asked, “Mom, why do you say that it’s a ghost?”
“I’m not the one who said it, your father said so.” Cui Hong Mei continued to yawn. “He would always say that he cannot do this Nuo dance anymore, the one who performs is a ghost, the ones who watch are ghosts too—Damn it, how could he say such a thing? Good thing it’s in this village, good thing he is surnamed Ning…”
Cui Hong Mei liked to talk bad about others from time to time, especially the bad things related to her relatives. But when all was said and done, she was born from this village, she grew up in this village, if one were to remove the grievances from her words, it would gradually restore the truth of the village’s Nuo dance…
Once upon a time, everyone in the Ning Village knew how to do the Nuo dance.
Moreover, based on the different surnames, the roles everyone performed were also different. The Ning family people have only performed as a singular role up till now—the god.
But after the Republic of China was founded, people turned jittery, there were even outsiders who reported the Ning Village for practicing witchcraft. For the sake of self-preservation, the village stopped their annual Nuo dance ancestor worship ceremony. They stopped performing out in the open, but they still privately passed down the Nuo dance as a craft that was inherited through time. It was passed down, generations through generations, to their children and grandchildren.
It was not until the country’s reform and opening3 that the Nuo dance succeeded in its application as world cultural heritage. That was the moment when the village recovered their tradition from the past, they would hold the Nuo dance ancestor worship ceremony once every few years.
“But a tradition that was tossed aside is hard to pick up again,” Cui Hong Mei said, “especially these few years, the amount of people who left and went to the city to work is too many. Many youngsters are not willing to learn the Nuo dance from their parents.”
As she got to this part, she glanced at Ning Yu Ren.
Ning Ning blinked her eyes. “Grandmother, you must be very good at the Nuo dance then.”
“Of course!” Cui Hong Mei’s eyes wandered around a little, looking a little guilty. “…I was very good at it when I was young, otherwise, your grandfather would not have taken a fancy to me. I’m old now, I can’t do it anymore.”
“Mama knows how to do it too?” Ning Ning turned her head and looked at Ning Yu Ren.
Ning Yu Ren hesitated for a moment. “I know a little bit. Your grandfather taught me, but he had yet to finish teaching me before passing away from illness.”
“I don’t know any of it,” Ning Ning looked at them, “why does the village chief insist that I do it?”
Ning Yu Ren and Cui Hong Mei looked at each other, they were baffled as well. After all, Ning Ning’s grandfather had passed away too early, there were a lot of important things that had not been clearly accounted for.
Cui Hong Mei rolled her eyes before suddenly laughing. “I know why…?”
“You have already given birth to a child, even if you are not married, you are water that has been half poured out.4” She told Ning Yu Ren, then her vision shifted to Ning Ning. “You’re different. Not only do you have the Ning surname, you have yet to marry anyone., I think those miserable old fools want to introduce their grandsons, nephews and sons to you.”
The corner of Ning Ning’s mouth twitched. “It can’t be that melodramatic, right?”
“You’re still young, you didn’t grow up in this village, you wouldn’t understand.” Cui Hong Mei became more and more awake as she spoke, she sat up and gesticulated. “These old farts see that which you don’t see value in at all as something akin to royal treasure. Just wait and see, I know them too well, they will definitely introduce prospects to you. If they succeed, the Ning family’s mask would successfully become their family’s possession.”
“Mask?” Ning Ning was astonished, she didn’t know how this matter went one whole round and ended up being related to masks.
“What did you think? Nuo dances are all done with masks, every family has a different mask in the village.” As she said that, Cui Hong Mei looked at her surroundings, “Speaking of which, where is our family’s mask?”
The three of them started to rummage through the house but they could not find it on the first floor. They pondered going up the second floor. The wooden house that had been beaten up by natural elements over centuries had become old and decadent like a human would. Stepping on the wooden steps was like stepping on mud—you would sink in. Ning Ning stepped on it twice and got off twice, she really did not have the guts to walk up such a flight of stairs.
Thump, thump, thump. A few knocks rang out behind the door.
After they opened the door, they saw the old village chief standing outside with a walking cane. He scanned them and grinned. “Doing spring cleaning?”
The three of them said yes at the same time. At that time, they actually looked like mothers and daughters.
After he nagged at them for a while, the old village chief returned to the main topic and said to them, “Come to my place for dinner tonight, I’ve prepared a banquet.”
“We wouldn’t want to impose on you.” Ning Yu Ren rejected him politely. “We just had a banquet at your place yesterday, you don’t have to be overly courteous on account of us.”
“I’m not being courteous to you,” the old village chief said with a grin, “the banquet yesterday was a welcome party for all of you, the banquet today…”
He slowly turned his head and stared at Ning Ning. “Is especially prepared for you.”
After he left, the three of them exchanged looks. The corner of Cui Hong Mei’s lips curled up as she smiled smugly. “I told you so, the old fart wants to introduce a prospect to you.”
Ning Ning did not take her words seriously, but while she was on the way to the village chief’s house that night, she started to have an air of uncertainty about her.
There were no streetlights in the village, the only thing that lit up the way to the village chief’s house were cars’ headlights.
“…Why are there so many cars?” Ning Ning murmured.
The roads in the village were very narrow, it was so narrow that there was no way two cars would be able travel side by side at the same time. A long queue of cars which looked like a snake with no end extended out from her to a place that she could not see.
Car doors opened repeatedly. One or two people, maybe two or three unfamiliar unfamiliar faces walked out. They were all smartly dressed, they looked like successful people or the offsprings of successful people.
“Tsk, what’s there to freak out about?” Cui Hong Mei pouted. “To return home in glory is not exclusive to me, everyone is the same here.”
Ning Ning had thought that her statement, “everyone is the same”, was an exaggeration, but after she entered the village chief’s house, she discovered to her surprise that it was actually true…
The amount of people gathered at the village chief’s house was too many. Some of them could enter the house, others could only sit in the courtyard. Lanterns with long tassels were hung on the tree branches, both lanterns and tassels gently swayed in the evening wind, swaying lights were shining on the big round table in the courtyard, on the abundant fish and meat on the table, and on the faces by the table.
There were super rookies in the financial world, the leading authorities of the literary world, even the worst of them was the world’s biggest lottery winner. These people would usually only appear in the newspaper, they would usually not keep in contact with the village, why did they all come together today?
Surely it couldn’t be as Cui Hong Mei had said…they were all people who just wanted to return home in glory?
“Ah, you’re here.” The village chief’s son welcomed her as he came out of the house. “Father and all the uncles have been waiting for you for a long time, quickly go in.”
In that moment, Ning Ning felt everyone’s gazes focused on her.
Whispers started to kick up around her.
“Who is she?”
“Must be a Ning family member.”
“Why are we sitting outside, but a junior like her is allowed to sit inside?”
“Shhh, you dare call her something like a junior? She is…”
The amount of people talking increased, their voices got lower and lower, they buzzed as if they were a box of bees.
Ning Ning did not want to be the center of their discussion, she did not want to go in to drink and sing with the uncles either, but she could not reject them. At this time, Ning Yu Ren gave her back a pat, smiling. “Go in and give a toast to all the uncles, come out when you’re done.”
Those words gave Ning Ning a way out, she breathed a sigh of relief and nodded. “Ok.”
She walked towards the main house alone. The village chief’s son only escorted her for a moment then stopped a meter away from the door. He acted respectfully as if he could not continue the rest of the way, only Ning Ning and certain people could walk down the path.
Ning Ning took a look at him before continuing to walk alone. She slowly pushed the carved wooden door in front of her.
Light poured out from within and shone on her face.
In front of her was a long table, at the head of the table was the old village chief.
As the ray of light pouring onto Ning Ning’s face became thicker and thicker, as the door slowly opened wider and wider on both sides, she saw that the long table had ten to twenty people sitting on each side.
When the door was fully opened, that group of people turned over consecutively to look at her.
Every one of them had a mask on their face.
The candlelights flickered on their masks, making them look like neither humans, demons nor ghosts, smiling at her from within the shadows of the candles, sparing no effort to be demonlike.
After half an instant, a quiet laughter resounded. The mask on the old village chief’s face was lifted up, he smiled at Ning Ning. “What’s the matter? Didn’t the adults at home tell you the rules of the village? A banquet in which everyone takes part like this, every representative of their surnames has to attend with their masks on.”
Ning Ning said honestly, “We have not found our mask yet.”
An uproar immediately erupted around the table. The old village chief stamped the floor with his cane, clang, clang, clang, signalling the crowd to quiet down. then he told Ning Ning earnestly, “Quickly look for it later. Look for me if you can’t find it, I will get the villagers to look for it with you… Alright, take a seat for now.”
Ning Ning sat on his left obediently. The moment her butt touched the seat, she started to think of an excuse to leave. The village chief stamped his cane again, calling for everyone’s attention upon himself, then he looked at the people around the table before he sighed. “We’re just missing one person.”
His words caused a wave of sighs.
“That’s right, even the Ning family has returned.”
“It’s rare that we get this kind of attendance.”
“There might never be such a chance again.”
“Such a pity, such a pity, we’re only missing one, if not we would be able to give a complete performance.”
Ning Ning was simply too curious, thus she asked the person beside her quietly, “Who are you guys talking about?”
It was a person wearing a mask with antlers attached to it, he looked like a beast from afar, he looked…not much like a human up close. He took a deep look at Ning Ning before he explained quietly, “In our village, every surname acts as a role—god, human, ghost. They are all here, we’re missing only the last one—the one who slays the ghost!”
Just as his voice trailed off, the door suddenly opened with a creak.
“Who is it?” The village chief was about to fly into a rage. “Who let you barge in…”
His voice stopped. Along with everyone else, he stared at the person’s face with their eyes wide open.
“Apologies.” A tall man stood in the doorway, the shadow behind him was extremely long. He slowly took off the snow white mask on his face, his voice was deep but husky, “I’m late.”
A familiar voice…
Ning Ning looked at the weary face underneath the mask.
…How could it be him?
1Huizhou architecture is one of the traditional Chinese architecture styles, which prevailed mostly in the historical Huizhou prefecture of Anhui, China as a critical element of Huizhou culture. The architecture uses bricks, woods and stone as raw materials, timber frames as significant structures. The bearing structure is a wooden beam, and parapet walls are made of bricks, rocks, and soils. Wiki article
2Literally archways to commemorate the chastity of a woman. Wiki article
3The Chinese economic reform is the program of economic reforms termed “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” and “socialist market economy” in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Wiki article
4In Chinese culture, when a woman gets married, she is no longer part of her original family, she is instead considered to be part of her husbands family.