He is arguably one of the most famous Chinese historical figures in the world. Outside of China, however, General Zuo Zongtang (A.K.A. General Tso) is known almost entirely by his namesake, a chicken dish as ubiquitous in America as it is unknown in China. With a recipe calling for sticky-sweet cholesterol bombs of fried chicken nuggets mixed with just a little chili pepper heat and a laughably inadequate amount of green vegetables, it’s little wonder the dish has found its way into American hearts and arteries. But General Zuo was more than just a Chinese counterpart to Colonel Sanders, he was also one of the most fascinating officials of the Qing era. He was a late bloomer who failed following the traditional pathways to success but ultimately became one of the empire’s most famous and indispensable military leaders.
The 2015 documentary The Search for General Tso, produced by author Jennifer 8. Lee (The Fortune Cookie Chronicles) and directed by Ian Cheney (King Corn, The City Dark) traces the history of General Tso’s Chicken from its invention in the banquet halls of Taiwan in the 1950s to its popularization in 1970s when it became the signature dish of two competing Hunanese Restaurants in New York’s Chinatown. While the film does an excellent job uncovering the somewhat murky story of the invention and evolution of this American Chinese staple, less careful attention is given to the man behind the name. A perfunctory visit to Zuo’s birthplace in Hunan barely gives us a glimpse of the real Zuo Zongtang.
Born in 1812 in Hunan to a family of modest means but with a tradition of scholarship and service to the empire, Zuo Zongtang and his brothers were groomed for success in the official exam system. In his youth, he was a bright student, if easily distracted. As a young man, he dutifully memorized the Confucian classics but was also fascinated by atlases, maps, and geographic works describing the far reaches of the empire. He passed the provincial exams in 1832 but despite training with some of the best teachers and scholars in Hunan, he would never pass the national-level exams that guaranteed a place in the highest echelons of officialdom. Three times he sat for the exam, and three times he failed.
After his third attempt, in 1838, Zuo turned his back on the system to become a gentleman farmer. He read books on military strategy and studied maps and atlases. He wrote (but never published) a historical geography of battles and campaigns and devoted the rest of his time to perfecting new techniques for raising crops and cultivating silk. Occasionally, former classmates or teachers would try and recruit him for official service only to have their offers rebuffed. He had his farm and his books and began referring to himself as the “Husbandman of the River Xiang.” Over time, he even turned away from his studies of war and distant lands and began instead to compile a book on farming and new techniques for improving silk production.
But for the extraordinary circumstances of the Taiping Rebellion (1853-1864), Zuo Zongtang would likely have lived out his life as a local expert on sericulture and not, as it turned out, one of the great military figures of the 19th century. When the Taiping armies swept through Hunan in 1850, Zuo Zongtang, at first, kept to his farm, but like many members of the local elite, he was called to duty.
He served first as a secretary on the staff of Zhang Liangji, the governor-general of Hunan and Hubei, and then, through the recommendation of another Hunanese, Zeng Guofan, he was offered a formal position in the provincial administration. It was not an easy transition. Zuo Zongtang was no politician, and his brusque style and strong opinions earned him as many enemies as admirers. His long-running competitive feud with Zeng Guofan is the stuff of legends. But few could doubt his abilities and in 1860, despite their differences, he joined Zeng Guofan as a staff officer in his army.
At the time, the central government had failed to dislodge the Taiping. The government troops were routinely underfunded and poorly led. Instead of relying on the government armies, local elites, like Zeng Guofan in Hunan and Li Hongzhang in Anhui, recruited their own provincial troops to fight against the rebellion. Consider for a moment if, during the American Civil War, the US Army had failed too many times on the battlefield, and so the landed families of Pennsylvania and the merchant houses of New York raised their own private armies to fight the Confederacy. Such was the situation in China during the 1850 and 1860s.
Zuo Zongtang led his troops in successful campaigns in Hunan and Guangxi, as well is in Zhejiang. He was also part of the force that ultimately dislodged the Taiping from their capital in Nanjing in 1864. For his efforts, Zuo was given titles and honors including being made an Earl and appointed Governor-General of Zhejiang and Fujian.
Not bad for a guy who failed his exams and didn’t start his official career until he was 40.
Zuo was an able administrator, opening up shipyards and devising schemes to rebuild lands devastated by the war against the Taiping. He became one of the strongest advocates for self-strengthening and learning from the West to develop China’s military and industrial technology. Following his successes along the coast, he moved inland to become governor-general in the provinces of Shaanxi and Gansu.
There he found a province on the brink of rebellion. Following the suppression of the Taiping, other groups had emerged, including the Nian in Anhui, Hubei, and Shandong, while, in the Western regions of the empire, local Muslim leaders were testing the limits of imperial authority.
From 1862-1877, Zuo Zongtang called on all of his experience as a military strategist, as well as his long study of military geography and the topography of the Western regions, to lead a series of campaigns in West China.
For nearly 15 years, Zuo Zongtang waged a relentless, and often brutal, war to suppress the rebellions in Xinjiang and to extend Qing control into Central Asia. The Treaty of St. Petersburg signed in 1881 between the Qing Empire and Russia formally acknowledged Qing control over the region and in 1884 the area known as Xinjiang was officially made a province of the Qing Empire.
When Zuo Zongtang died in 1885, he was accorded the highest honors in the land and lauded as one of the great officials of the era.
Why name a chicken dish after him? In the documentary, Chef Peng Chang-kuei, who is credited with inventing the earliest version of the dish in Taiwan in the 1950s, wanted to recall his home in Hunan by naming it after one of the province’s most famous sons. I’m guessing Mao Zedong Chicken wouldn’t have been a big hit on KMT banquet tables at the time, and Zuo Zongtang was awarded yet another posthumous honor.
When confronted with a plate of gooey chicken goodness, it’s easy to overlook the name on the menu. But Zuo Zongtang remains one of the most fascinating, sometimes controversial, and enigmatic figures of recent Chinese history.
Cover image from agri.com.cn