A few months before Robert was sent to Canton, Master Tee Lee Ping had a discussion with him about China’s dynasties. They met at the house in Ningpo where the lessons took place.
“My mind is famished,” Robert said.
Tee Lee Ping arranged his robe and sat on the bench in the parlor. “You are not talking about food.” His nose wrinkled. He sniffed. The crackle of oil popping and the scent of ginger and garlic came from the kitchen.
“But I am,” Ping replied. “Your concubine is a great cook. I love simple food soaked with flavor.”
Robert smiled. “That’s why she’s cooking. I’m going to squeeze you dry. Tonight I want to deviate from our literature and language lesson. I want to know about China’s dynasties.”
“So, once again, I have to do more than help you improve your perfect pronunciation of Mandarin.”
“Good, I will earn the meal Ayaou is cooking.” He smacked his lips.
“I’m counting on it.”
“The first dynasty started with the Yellow Emperor thousands of years before the birth of your Jesus Christ,” Ping said. “No one knows if the Yellow Emperor really existed because we have no writing from that time. Only myths.”
“And how many dynasties were there if we count the Yellow Emperor?”
“I cannot recite exactly how many, but there have been more than twenty,” Ping said.
“It sounds as if I’m not going to get my money’s worth. Should I tell Ayaou to stop cooking?
“Of course not.” Ping stuck his squashed nose in the air and sniffed. “That smells so good, my mouth is watering. Why don’t we move to the kitchen and eat while we talk?”
“Only if you tell me about the Ch’ing Dynasty.”
“You are such a curious student.”
“And knowledge is the food I crave. I’m willing to trade Ayaou’s cooking for that.”
Ping laughed. “I will help, but it is getting late. If I do not eat soon, I must be on my way. My wife will have dinner ready. She cooks for the family now.” He sighed. His bushy eyebrows lowered making his frog-like face look sad. “Alas, my wife needs cooking lessons. It seems her mother never taught her. She overcooks, shrivels the vegetables and dries the rice. It is like eating pebbles. My mother criticizes her, but it does no good.”
“Bring your wife next time,” Ayaou said. She stood in the kitchen doorway holding a wooden cooking utensil. “While you two talk, I’ll teach her tricks that will make your mother happy.”
“A good idea,” Ping said. “What you are cooking smells delightful.”
“Master Ping, tell me as much as you can about the Ch’ing Dynasty, and we will fill your belly before you leave.” Robert led the way to the kitchen. Ping followed.
They played this game often. He acted curious and begged for knowledge, and Ping, with a sparkle in his eyes, said it was getting late while being pleased he had such a curious student. Of course, stuffing him with Ayaou’s cooking helped.
“The first Manchu emperor sat on the Dragon throne in 1644. However, the Manchu are not Chinese. They are from a minority, tribal group north of the Great Wall. They came to power by accident. It is amazing they have ruled so long. They can be brutal even when unnecessary.” He stopped talking to fill his mouth.
“How did they come to power by accident?”
Ping swallowed and patted his lips dry. “They conquered China by being clever. An opportunity presented itself and Prince Dorgon, the Manchu regent, saw the moment and plucked it like a ripe peach.”
“Give me details.”
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Honorable Mentions in General Fiction