Tso Tsung-tang (Wade-Giles romanization)
also: Zuo Zongtang (pinyin romanization)
1812 – 1885
People all around the world enjoy the sweet-and-hot sticky standby of Chinese restaurant cuisine know as General Tso’s Chicken. Yet, outside of China, few people are aware that there really was a General Tso and that he was one of China’s greatest generals of the 19th century. General Tso has even been compared favorably to William Tecumseh Sherman, whose career was roughly contemporaneous to that of the celebrated Chinese general.
Tso Tsung-tang (Zuo Zongtang) was born on November 10, 1812 in Hunan Province. His early life was unpromising: he failed official court exams three times. After this disgrace, he married and retired to the life of a country gentleman, taking up silkworm raising and tea growing.
Some men are made great by events. Such was the case with Tso Tsung-Tang. The fourteen-year long Taiping Rebellion, beginning in 1850 made Tso’s military career and elevated him to legendary status. Tso initially served as an adjutant and secretary for the governor of Hunan province. In 1860, with a force of 5,000 volunteers, he drove the rebels out of Hunan and Guangxi provinces and into Zhejiang. Tso’s forces captured the large cities of Shaoxing and pushed further south into Fujian and Guangdong (Canton) provinces, the origin of the Taiping rebellion. The rebellion was crushed in 1864, largely thanks to the military skill of General Tso.
General Tso was the appointed governer of Zhejiang 1862-1863, governor-general of Zhejiang and Fujian provinces 1863-1866, and later served as governor-general of Shaanxi and Gansu provinces.
General Tso was known to be utterly ruthless to the enemies of the Emperor; he inflicted Chinese law’s most severe penalty, Death by a Thousand Cuts, on the captured leaders of the Nian Rebellion (1868). General Tso went on to suppress a Muslim rebellion (1868-77) on the northwest frontier, resulting in the deportation of large numbers of the Muslim population from Northwest China.
General Tso served the Qing (Ch’ing) government as an advisor as well as a fighting man. In the debate between coastal defense frontier defense, he advocated dealing with Westerners through diplomacy, arguing that Western powers fought for their commercial interests. On the other hand, Tso believed that strong frontier defense was required to deal with Russia’s territorial ambitions.
The general retired after 1882 but was recalled in 1884 to plan defense of the Fujian coast during the war with France (1884-85) for control of Annam (Vietnam). Tso Tsung-tang died on September 5, 1885.
Sources: Michael Browning, The Washington Post, Wednesday, April 17, 2002; Page F01 Who Was General Tso And Why Are We Eating His Chicken?