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General Tso's Chicken and Zou Zongtang

Over the weekend, Biography Resource Center relucantantly went to a Chinese food restaurant for a family dinner (we prefer Shanghai cuisine, which can’t be found near us, to “American” Hunan/Cantonese food). What can we say, we always try to be a good sport. Our fellow eaters ordered the usual — almond boneless chicken, Mongolian beef, shrimp in lobster sauce, and, of course, General Tso’s chicken.

This was when we realized that we had no idea who this General Tso fellow was. And that we had to know, as soon as possible. We’d been blithely consuming his chicken for years without questioning the source. Luckily, BioRC doesn’t close for weekends or late nights. We’re always open thanks to remote authentication.

There are about a million and one ways to spell General Tso on a Chinese restaurant menu. Sometimes it’s Tso, sometimes Chow, Zou, Zhou, Cho, Zo, Jo, or Tzo (but not Larry, Curly, or Moe). But the man for whom it is named is actually Zuo Zongtang (1812-1885), a 19th century Chinese general. We have a biography on him in our Lives & Perspectives Collection, from Encyclopedia of Modern Asia. Also, if you do an Advanced Search for full-text on his name, a few interesting periodical articles come back, as well as a brief mention in a profile of Prince Gong from Historic World Leaders. He was an interesting and educated fellow, living a long life in service to his country:

Born into a scholarly family in Hunan Province in 1812, Zuo Zongtang studied works in the fields of history, classics, geography, and agriculture in his early years. He participated in military affairs in 1852 in the campaign against the Taiping Rebellion and soon displayed his military ability and sagacity. In 1863 he was promoted to governor-general of Fujian and Zhejiang Provinces and remained in this position until 1866. During this period, Zuo founded China’s first modern dockyard and naval school in Fuzhou. He also carried out several important economic reforms, including the encouragement of the cotton industry in Xinjiang and mobilizing soldiers to farm unused land.

There is no mention of General Zuo/Cho/Tso’s chicken in this biography, probably because his relationship to the dish is wholly apocryphal. If you find yourself getting hungry and can’t find a fair-to-middling Chinese dive within a few miles, just keep your eyes peeled for the chain Pei Wei, where they serve it daily and call it “Pei Wei Spicy” aka “General Chu.”

We leave you with this excellent talk from Jennifer 8. Lee of the New York Times, one of our favorite writers at the old gray lady.

Source: “Zuo Zongtang.”Encyclopedia of Modern Asia. Karen Christensen and David Levinson, eds. 6 vols. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003.

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Posted on: March 9, 2009, 5:07 pm Category: Factoids Tagged with: , , ,

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