Posts Tagged ‘Taiping Rebellion’

General Tso’s Chicken

September 21, 2014

The other day, I was eating at a Chinese restaurant and I noticed that one of the items at the buffet was called “General Tso’s chicken“. I started to wonder who General Tso could be and why he has a chicken dish named after him. Was he, perhaps, the Chinese equivalent of Colonel Sanders? Naturally, I consulted that infallible fount of knowledge and wisdom that is Wikipedia.

Well, as it turns out, General Tso was a nineteenth century Chinese military leader who helped to suppress some of the rebellions that were endemic in the last century of the Qing  Dynasty. His name was actually Tso Tsung-T’ang, or Zuo Zongtang using the Pinyin system of romanization. Zuo Zongtang was born in Xiangyin County in the province of Hunan in the year 1812. His family was poor but he was ambitious so he took the Imperial civil service exam seven times, failing each time. This was no cause for shame, the vast majority of candidates did not pass, but it did limit his options for advancement. Discouraged, Zuo Zongtang retired to his family farm to raise silkworms and study. The world was changing and new ways of rising in China were opening up. It was becoming increasingly obvious that China had fallen behind the European nations in science, technology and military power.  Zuo became aware of China’s increasing backwardness and he was one of the first Chinese to study Western science and culture. Zuo became known and respected as an expert in the new, foreign learning.

Zuo Zongtang

The Man(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When the Taiping Rebellion broke out in 1850, Zuo became an advisor to Zeng Guofan, the governor of Hunan, who was tasked with raising an army to defeat the Taiping rebels after they had fought and destroyed the regular Qing armies in the region. By 1860 Zuo was given command of an army and he managed to clear the rebels out of Hunan and Guangxi provinces. He and Zeng captured Nanjing in 1864, ending the Taiping Rebellion at last. In 1865 Zuo was appointed Viceroy over the provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang. He was also made Commissioner of Naval Industries and opened China’s first modern shipyard and naval academy in the city of Fuzhou.

province-english

In 1867, Zuo became Viceroy of Shaanxi and Gansu provinces and was ordered to put down the Nian Rebellion which had plagued northern China the same way the Taipings had been in the south.  He accomplished this task by the following year and was then sent out to the west to deal with the Muslim rebels in the autonomous region of Xinjiang.  By 1878, Zuo Zongtang had crushed the rebels, converted Xinjiang into a province of China, with himself as the first governor and had persuaded the Russians to withdraw from the border regions they had occupied in the chaos of the rebellion. Zuo Zongtang has seen to it that his troops were armed with modern weapons and so was able to credibly threaten war against the under manned Russian outposts. This was one of the few times in the nineteenth century in which the Chinese were able to resist a foreign power.

Zuo Zongtang was promoted to the Grand Council in 1880. Zuo was not really a politician or bureaucrat and didn’t much like the post so in 1881 he was made governor of Liangjiang. His last military commission was as Commander in Chief of the Army and Inspector General of coastal defenses in Fujian when the Sino-French War broke out over the status of  Vietnam in 1884. Again, the Chinese army under Zuo performed somewhat better than they had against European armies previously and they managed to give the French a hard time in Vietnam and southern China. The French won the war, however, largely because the French Navy could bombard the coastal cities of China at will. Zuo Zongtang died in 1885, just after the war ended, a national hero.

That explains who General Tso was, but how did he get a the chicken named after him? Did he work as a chef when he wasn’t leading armies? Was sweet, spicy deep-fried chicken a particular favorite of his?

PS GeneralTsosChicken1

His chicken(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The truth is that nobody seems to know how General Tso’s chicken came to be named after General Tso. He couldn’t have possibly eaten it. The dish was actually invented in America, by Chinese immigrants who had fled China after the Communist takeover in 1949. The Shun Lee Palace in New York City claims to be the first restaurant to serve General Tso’s chicken in 1972, but that claim has been contested. Peng Jia was Chiang Kai-Shek‘s chef when Chiang fled to Taiwan and in 1973 he opened a restaurant in New York. Peng claims to have invented the dish while experimenting with ways to make Hunanese cuisine more palatable to non-Hunanese, mostly by adding sugar and sweetening it. Whatever the case, General Tso’s chicken was unknown in China before the Chinese government opened China to foreign trade and contacts. Since then, Chinese chefs have successfully introduced the dish to China although it is not a favorite in General Tso’s native Hunan. Most Hunanese consider General Tso’s chicken to be too sweet.

 

 

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Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom

June 17, 2013

The Taiping Rebellion was the bloodiest civil war in the history of China, and quite possibly the most destructive war in the whole sanguine history of war, yet few outside of China know very much about the course of this titanic conflict, or even that it happened.

The Taiping Rebellion began as a religious movement led by Hong Xiuquan, a man who had had a nervous breakdown after failing the very difficult civil service exams that were the path to success in Imperial China. After reading some tracts given to him by Christian missionaries, he conceived the idea that he was Jesus’ younger brother and began to form a cult, which became a Chinese nationalist movement against the Manchu Qing dynasty that ruled China. The Manchus did not care for this movement and their persecution sparked a rebellion that, at its height, involved almost half of the Chinese Empire.

Contemporary drawing of Hong Xiuquan, dating f...

Roughly contemporary with our own Civil War, there were a number of striking similarities between the American Civil War and the Taiping Rebellion, a fact noted by both Chinese and American observers. Both conflicts involved a rebellion by the southern regions of their respective countries against a government controlled by the north. Both were the most destructive civil wars ever fought by

either nation. Both wars threatened the prosperity of the British economy, which depended on trade with both America and China. In both cases foreign powers, especially Britain and France believed they had an interest in intervening. In both cases, the north won.

The differences between the two wars were greater, however. The Taiping Rebellion lasted longer, from 1850 to 1864. It was fought far more cruelly than the American Civil War. Imagine instead of a pleasant conversation between Grant and Lee at Appomattox, Grant seizing the surrendering Lee and having him tortured to death. Or, Sherman deliberately massacring Confederate civilians when he burned Atlanta. The United States was also spared the complication of having British or French troops invading to fight on either side, or having the British Navy burn down the White House to force America to trade. China was not so fortunate. While fighting the rebellion, the Chinese were also forced to fight the Arrow War against the British who burned down the Xianfeng Emperor’s Summer Palace in retaliation for the Chinese government’s mistreatment of their representatives.

The outcome and legacy of the two wars were also much different for the two nations. The United States emerged from the Civil War stronger and more united. In the decades following the Civil War, America became an industrial giant and a world power. Again, China was not so lucky. The Qing Dynasty managed to cling to power for the next half-century, growing ever weaker and less capable of defending China against the encroaching foreigners.

Extent of the Taiping Rebellion (French). 中文: ...

Extent of the Taiping Rebellion (French).
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I said, little is known of this conflict in the West. There have been a couple good histories of the Taiping Rebellion written by Western historians, including Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom by Stephen R Platt. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is not so much a comprehensive history of the Taiping Rebellion, that would take several volumes to do it justice, but a story of some of the leading players would were caught up in the great events. Platt tells the story of Hong Rengan, the preacher’s assistant and cousin of Hong Xiuquan, who felt obliged to join the Taipings to help his cousin and who became Hong’s most trusted advisor. There is Zeng Guofan, the Chinese Confucian scholar who reluctantly became the general who crushed the Taipings. There were James Bruce, eighth Earl Elgin, who led the British in what he felt was an unjust war to force the Qing to allow the trade in opium, and his belligerent brother, Frederick Bruce who hated the Taipings and slanted his reports to encourage the British and the French to send forces to China to fight them. There were many Europeans, especially missionaries who sympathized with the Taipings and hoped that they would create a new, Christian China. There were others, like Frederick Townsend Ward, who sensed that fighting as mercenaries for the Qing could be very profitable.

This emphasis on some of the leading actors in the drama makes Platt’s account interesting and readable. In fact, it reads almost like a novel and I found it hard to put down. The only weakness in his approach that I can see is that he barely mentions the beginnings and early years of the Taiping movement and the history only really begins when Hong Rengan decides to join the Taipings in 1858. The story also ends with the end of the Rebellion, and it might have been nice to read a little more about how China’s “reconstruction era” turned out. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is a worthy book about a somewhat forgotten war and I can heartily recommend it for anyone interested in China.


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