A Chinese Revolution
A Chinese Revolution:
I recently had the pleasure of taking an OLLI course at the Waterbury branch of Uconn that dealt with a century of abuses and humiliation of China by foreign powers in the 1800s. An interesting and current subject was discussed. But first a brief review of events leading up to that subject.
Foreign merchants had gained access to Chinese markets in the mid-1800s and were making huge sums of money in unfair trade agreements. One item, high grade opium, was being shipped into China by British merchants from their India colony. They flooded the country with the very low-cost Opium with devastating effects on the population. The vast profits the British merchants and government were making far outbalanced any morality they might have felt.
The Quin Dynasty (Chinese Government) tried various means (unsuccessfully) to end the Opium trade which, eventually led to a confrontation with foreign powers and the Opium wars. While China had vast numbers, foreign militaries had far better weaponry and organization. Chinese forces were crushed with heavy loses and the Opium trade continue. In the settlement Great Britain got Hong Kong.
The downward spiral China was in, led to the Boxer Rebellion which was also crushed by foreign armies. The Chinese Imperial Army was destroyed, the capital occupied, and the country humiliated and ravished. Japan got Korea and Taiwan. Russia got Manchuria. China got the bill. Reparations of about a half billion ounces of silver paid over 39 years at 4% interest.
By the early 1900s, a greatly weakened Quin Dynasty was on its last legs and losing control of much of the country to rebel warlords. That’s when one horde, the Bogd Khaan, seized control of Mongolia, a Chinese providence, and declared independence.
The Emperor said, “I don’t want to lose Mongolia” or something to that effect and sent an army to quell the rebellion. That army was led by none other than General Tso. Yup, the General Tso. Tso marched his army into Mongolia, confronted the Bogd Khann and in a huge battle was defeated. The Chinese army was decimated and Tso taken prisoner.
Now there is an unwritten, mutually respected rule among generals that if one is captured, they don’t put him in the stockade with the grunt infantrymen prisoners. He gets sort of an apartment of his own. He’s still a prisoner of war but a comfortable prisoner of war.
So General Tso is alone in his prison apartment despondent, feeling anxiety, stress and humiliation. He’s borderline suicidal. A proud career military man, he doesn’t want to be known as the general who lost vast, mineral-rich Mongolia. He turns his attention to what many depressed people do – towards food.
Locked is his prison apartment with plenty of time on his hands, Tso experiments mixing garlic and chilis and ginger and sesame oil and brown sugar and soy sauce and other ingredients for days until he gets just the right combination for a flavorful sauce. But he stumped. Tso can’t get the sauce to stick to the meat. Then one day a breakthrough. He adds cornstarch to the sauce making it pasty. He coats diced cubed chicken with the mixture and viola, it stays on. Tso fries the chicken and serves it over rice with broccoli florets as a garnishment. It’s a huge hit. This dish becomes known as General Tso’s Chicken and its popularity spreads rapidly across China.
Its important to understand, up to this point Chinese food was as bland as could be. Rice was boiled. Vegetables were boiled. Noodles were boiled. Eggs were boiled and if fortunate enough to have meat, then that got boiled too. But General Tso’s Chicken sparked a culinary revolution throughout China and cooking became a creative art….a competitive sport sort of.
Boiled rice became tasty fried rice. Plain noodles evolved into wonderful Lo Mein. Boiled eggs were transformed into delicious Egg Foo Yung. Vegetables got enclosed in a pastry crust and became spring rolls. Meats got Kung Powed or Moo Gu Gai Panned and regional cooking like Hunan, Cantonese and Sichuan flourished. All from the inspiration of General Tso and his flavorful Chicken.
The Mongolians, then (and still) a sovereign country, realized General Tso was no longer a threat, released him from captivity. General Tso returned to China, gave up his military career and continued cooking. While Tso was never able to duplicate the fame and success of his signature dish, General Tso’s Chicken and joys of Chinese food have spread to every corner of the planet.
History has been kind to General Tso and he is remembered has the Godfather of Chinese cooking. And not the guy who lost Mongolia.
General Tso Epilog
Hi dear readers.
The first part of this story is completely true and accurate. At the time of the Uconn course, I could have written ten pages of details. And volumes have been written about what was done to the Chinese people/country at the hands of foreign governments.
The second part of the story, where General Tso creates a famous worldwide delicious recipe and sparks a culinary revolution in China is pure fiction. Possibly entertaining but nevertheless fiction. So why would I add fiction to an Internet site dedicated to History. And of course, risk pissing Jean off. Because I feel much of what is considered history is unfounded, untruthful, and concocted.
Usually by the winners.
For example: in Europe 1939 the shooting war started when Polish troops/nationalists crossed the border and attacked a German radio station ( The Gleiwitz Incident). Was it their music being played? I dunno. But this justified a massive German counterattack the next day that overwhelmed Poland and ultimately, by 1945, took about five million Polish lives. While we know this event to be false, if, and a big IF, Germany had won WWII, the Polish radio station attack would have become factual history.
Conversely, the United States did the exact same thing in 2003 to initiate the Second Iraqi War. Non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) prompted America to launch a full attack. Iraqi death totals are very disputed ranging from 150,000 to over a million. But hey, we won so we get to write history. Right?
Right now a huge number of Americans are trying to rewrite, trying to concoct history to their liking – The events of January 6, 2021. It goes from the demonstrators “hugging and kissing” the police and “zero threat” (Donald Trump) to “Legitimate Political Discourse” from the Republican National Committee. And if these people get in a position of power, the historical events of January 6th will be as fictional as my General Tso’s Chicken.
The truth matters.