Monday, April 4, 2011

Eats, Shoots And Leaves

When Americans go out for Chinese food, one of the items they are most often going to see is General Tso's chicken. (Actual Chinese people, not so much. Anyone that's ever seen a travel or food show that's visited China will know that American Chinese food and actual Chinese food are two completely different worlds. If you go to China, General Tso's chicken in all likelihood won't be on any menu.)

You, however, have probably wondered at some point just who General Tso is and why does he have chicken named after him.

Well, isn't this your lucky day. Assuming your lucky day wasn't when Salon answered the question, or NPR, or the Washington Post, whose direct link is wonky but it was reprinted elsewhere so here. It's new to you, right?

General Tso is Zuo Zongtang, born in Hunan province in 1812. He was planning on a career in civil service, but in Imperial China, he needed to pass an exam in order to enter civil service, and he failed seven times.

That wasn't actually particularly embarrassing as far as the Imperial examination system went. China's bureaucracy is historically where everyone wanted to be; that's where the political power and perks have always been. There was no stigma in failing, even in failing repeatedly, so as not to discourage anyone from keeping interest and trying again later on. It was tough to get into the bureaucracy; it was supposed to be. Only 5% of exam-takers passed.

After seven times, though, Zuo called it quits and headed back home to farm silkworms, and was living quietly when the Taiping Rebellion erupted in 1850.

What's the Taiping Rebellion? In brief, it was a huge civil war from 1860-1864, that pitted the ruling Qing dynasty against the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, which was led by Hong Xiuquan, who had failed the exams four times himself. After his last failure, he found Christianity. In fact, he found that he was Jesus' younger brother. He found followers, two of which claimed to be channeling Jesus himself, as well as God, and as such they tried to usurp authority from a mere younger sibling of Jesus. This of course led to Jesus' younger brother killing God in 1856.

Bet that's the first time you've ever read that sentence.

Hong and what was left of his followers found a Confucianist government in charge, and decided China needed to be a Christian nation. An eye-popping 20 million dead people later, he and the movement found their grave. (He also, in all likelihood, found a very sad Jesus asking him how 20 million deaths could get brought on by someone claiming to be the younger brother of a guy known for loving everyone.)

Zuo's part in this was to, over the course of the war, march into the Taiping capital of Nanjing and assist in dethroning the second and final Taiping leader, Hong Tianguifu, who was handed the reins after Xiuquan's death and thus subsequently executed at age 16 despite by all appearances having absolutely no idea what was going on at any point in the proceedings.

Taiping started Zuo up the Chinese military ranks. He would be called upon in three more conflicts: the Nien Rebellion in 1868, the Dungan Revolt lasting from 1862-77, and the Sino-French War in 1884-85.

Nien, by the way, is notable as it stemmed from men who turned to banditry because there were not enough women to go around and single men- 'bare branches' had a much harder time sustaining themselves economically. In 2007, China's one-child policy had led to families preferring sons that could support them in their old age, leading to an imbalance of 119 men for every 100 women. In 1850, pre-dating the one-child policy (and the Nien Rebellion, but not the Niens), the ratio was 129:100. Not only was there an economic incentive, it was exacerbated by a famine, meaning not only was a girl less valuable in the long term, in the short term a girl was just another mouth that families could not afford to feed.

But back to the main question. Why does Zuo- or Tso- have a chicken dish named after him, and why is it not an actual Chinese dish? There are two possible origins. One has Zuo's wife making him the dish one day, but that's the less likely origin. The much more likely origin is that during the Communist revolution that put Mao Zedong into power, one person, Peng Changkuei, fled China, settled in New York, and invented the dish there. It was a toned-down dish, replacing spicy Hunan elements with sweeter Cantonese elements to appeal to a larger Cantonese community in New York. It became popular because Henry Kissinger was in the neighborhood a lot, ate at Peng's restaurant all the time, liked the chicken, and spread the word.

Why it got named for him, though, is hard to peg. Maybe it was just named after a big name in Hunan history, as Peng was Hunan. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that it was a new dish and Peng wanted some sort of unique name to be able to advertise with. Maybe it was a bit of gallows humor. General Tso's chicken is chopped, and General Tso chopped up a lot of his enemies- they still used swords in China during the Taiping Rebellion- and so perhaps the chicken got his name that way.

Coming soon: how Happy Family traces its origins to the movie Soylent Green. Or not.

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