Each evening, thousands of Americans drift into
Chinese restaurants or, if they are too lazy to go
out, pick up the phone and order one of the most
popular dishes on the menu: General Tso's Chicken, a
sugary-spicy melange of dark-meat tidbits,
deep-fried then fired up with ginger, garlic, sesame
oil, scallions and hot chili peppers.
Not one in 10,000 knows who General Tso (most
commonly pronounced "sow") was, nor what terrible
times he lived through, nor the dark massacres that
distinguished his baleful, belligerent career.
Setting their chopsticks aside, patting their
stomachs, the satisfied diners spare scarcely a
thought for General Tso, except to imagine that he
must have been a great connoisseur of hot stir-fried
Who was he?
General Tso Tsungtang,
or as his name is spelled in modern Pinyin, Zuo
Zongtang, was born on Nov. 10, 1812, and died on
Sept. 5, 1885. He was a frighteningly gifted
military leader during the waning of the Qing
dynasty, a figure perhaps the Chinese equivalent of
the American Civil War commander William Tecumseh
Sherman. He served with brilliant distinction during
China's greatest civil war, the 14-year-long Taiping
Rebellion, which claimed millions of lives.
Tso was utterly ruthless. He smashed the Taiping
rebels in four provinces, put down an unrelated
revolt called the Nian Rebellion, then marched west
and reconquered Chinese Turkestan from Muslim
Arthur W. Hummel devotes five double-columned pages
to the general in the monumental 1944 "Eminent
Chinese of the Ch'ing Period (1644-1912)" published
by the Library of Congress.
Tso emerges from several sources as a self-made man,
born in Hunan province, a hilly hot-tempered
heartland, whose cuisine rivals that of Sichuan for
sheer firepower. (While Sichuan food is hot right up
front, in the mouth, in your face; Hunanese cuisine
tends to build up inside you, like a slow charcoal
fire, until you feel as though your belly is filled
with burning coals.)
As a young man Tso flunked the official court exams
three times, a terrible disgrace. He returned home,
married and devoted himself to practical studies,
like agriculture and geography. He took up silkworm
farming and tea farming and chose a gentle
sobriquet, calling himself "The Husbandman of the
River Hsiang." Like Sherman, stuck teaching at a
military academy in Louisiana on the eve of the
Civil War, he seemed washed up.
He was 38 when the Taiping Rebellion broke out in
1850. For the rest of his life, Tso would wield the
sword, becoming one of the most remarkably
successful military commanders in Chinese history.
The Taiping Rebellion -- a movement that in part
advocated Christian doctrine -- nearly toppled the
Qing dynasty. It was founded by Hong Xiuquan, a
Chinese mystic who believed he was the younger
brother of Jesus. The whole astonishing episode has
been described admirably by Yale scholar Jonathan
Spence in his "God's Chinese Son." (Norton, 1996).
Tso made war, and war made Tso. He began his
military career as an adjutant and secretary for the
governor of Hunan province. He raised a force of
5,000 volunteers and took the field in September
1860, driving the Taiping rebels out of Hunan and
Guangxi provinces, into coastal Zhejiang. There he
captured the big cities of Shaoxing, still famous
for its sherrylike rice wine. From there he pushed
south into Fujian and Guangdong provinces, where the
revolt had first begun and spread, and had crushed
the Taipings by the time the rebellion ended in
The Taiping Rebellion was the greatest upheaval in
19th century China. It caused massive displacements
and shifts in population. Hundreds of thousands of
people fled or emigrated, many to America, where
they worked building the transcontinental railroad,
which was completed in 1869.
It would be possible to leave the story here and say
that General Tso's Chicken simply honors a great
personality, just as Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of
Wellington, is honored in Beef Wellington; Pavel
Stroganoff, a 19th-century Russian diplomat, in Beef
Stroganoff; Count Charles de Nesselrode (another
19th-century Russian diplomat) in Nesselrode
Pudding,; or Australian opera singer Nellie Melba in
the dessert, Peach Melba. Indeed some believe it
quite likely that the dish was whipped up for the
general after some signal victory, just as Chicken
Marengo was whipped up for Napoleon after he
defeated the Austrians at Marengo on June 14, 1800.
Still, the recipe is not particularly original --
the ingredients are used in many stir-fry Chinese
dishes -- and the dark meat chicken argues for a
humbler origin. It's a poor man's dish, not a feast
for a field marshal.
Is it possible that, struggling to carve out a new
life in America under backbreaking adversities, and
having heard of the sword skills of the remorseless
General Tso (who had the top leaders of the Nian
Rebellion executed with the proverbial "death of
10,000 cuts"), the overseas exiles indulged in some
gallows-humor about their old enemy? That the
chopped-up chicken dish may have gotten its name
from the sliced and diced victims of Tso's grim
This might conceivably explain why General Tso's
Chicken is very much an overseas Chinese dish,
filtering the hot, peppery taste of Hunan cuisine,
through the sweetening process of Cantonese cooking.
Most of the immigrants to America came from coastal
regions: Shanghai and Canton.
Tso Much For That
The details of Tso's life are easy to document. But
how the chicken got named for him is another matter.
In "Chinese Kitchen" (Morrow, 1999), author Eileen
Yin-Fei Lo says that dish is a Hunan classic called
"chung ton gai," or "ancestor meeting place
But to others, General Tso's chicken recipe may be
no more ancient than 1972, and may have more in
common with Manhattan than with mainland China. On
"The Definitive General Tso's Chicken Page" (http://www.echonyc.com/~erich/tso.htm)
New Yorker Eric Hochman theorizes "It was invented
in the mid-1970s, in NYC, by one Chef Peng.
"Around 1974, Hunan and Szechuan food were
introduced to the city, and General Tso's Chicken
was an exemplar of the new style. Peng's, on East
44th Street, was the first restaurant in NYC to
serve it, and since the dish (and cuisine) were new,
Chef Peng was able to make it a House Specialty, in
spite of its commonplace ingredients."
My own research led me to the same city, but a
different Manhattan restaurateur, who claims the
dish is the brilliant invention of his former
partner, a gifted Chinese immigrant chef named T.T.
"He went into business with me in 1972," said
Michael Tong, owner of New York's Shun Lee Palaces,
East (155 E. 55th St.) and West (43 W. 65th St.).
"We opened the first Hunanese restaurant in the
whole country, and the four dishes we offered you
will see on the menu of practically every Hunanese
restaurant in America today. They all copied from
"First, Lake Tung Ting shrimp. Lake Tung Ting in
northern Hunan province is very famous for its
"Second, crispy sea bass. We roll them in cornstarch
and we fry them crispy. Then we shower them with the
sauce. A lot of restaurants will use catfish, but
they don't know how to cook them in the sauce, so
they put the sauce on the side. Sometimes they just
give you plain soy sauce. We know how to cook them
in the sauce.
"Third, orange crispy beef. This is very, very
popular with us. Any Hunan or Sichuan restaurant, if
you call them and ask for orange crispy beef, they
will know what you are talking about. We invented
"Fourth, General Tso's chicken, sometimes called
General Tsung's chicken or General Tsao's chicken."
If Tong's tale is true, General Tso never ate the
dish named after him. The great warrior, the prop of
the Qing dynasty, the subduer of rebels and
uprisings who carved his name into Chinese history
at the point of a sword, had to wait more than 100
years for an inventive expatriate chef to award him
his American triumph and make his name famous in the
General Tso, most likely, was a man ahead of his
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