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.
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.
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?
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.
- Was There Really a General Tso? (todayifoundout.com)
- The Hunt for General Tso: The Man, The Dish (cookmixmingle.com)
- Who Was General Tso and Why Are We Eating His Chicken? (menuism.com)
- Who Was General Tso? (mentalfloss.com)