By Jennifer 8. Lee | June 28, 2007
My friend Jennifer sent me a picture of her cat named General Tso!
I’m sure the Qing Dynasty Chinese warrior would be amused to learn that he has pets named after him overseas more than a century after his death (yes he actually existed, watch this blog for more details. I’ve even met his family, which is still in Hunan). It turns out it was the boyfriend’s idea, who said…
Â “we must call him general tso. it will make him behave. he’ll live under the constant threat of being taken to the nearest chinese restaurant.”
Jennifer adds though,
this, when he was skeptical about adopting the cat from friends. now, of course, he loves him.
Now, some historical context. When the Chinese immigrats first landed in the United States in the 1850s, the Americans found them (and the food they ate) utterly bizarre. (This was before General Tso’s chicken, and a matter of fact before General Tso’s fame). Eating was a way to differentiate “us” vs. “them” in a world that was much more insular.
These strangers spoke in chingchongy voices and had long braids. But notably, they ate with sticks! (when real men used knives and forks) And they ate rice! (when real mean ate meat). Samuel Gompers of American Federated Labor fame issued a pamphlet in 1907 called “Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion. Meat vs. Rice American Manhood vs Asiatic Coolism. Which Shall Survive? (pdf). It’s available at the Library of Congress so I’ve scanned it in. (My friend Tim Wu, IP Law Professor,Â says since it’s before 1929ish, there are no copyright issues with posting it on the Internet.)
So people feared that the Chinese ate cats. If not cats then dogs. If not dogs than rats.Â The New York Times even took this seriously, sending out a reporter in 1883 to find out: Do the Chinese Eat Rats? (pdf)
And this xenophobia continues to this day. Snopes has a good discussion of it.
In summary, that eating cats has been known to happen but in very limited and extreme circumstances usually because limited food. Modern Chinese society (here or there) does not eat cat. Certainly no one I know has ever eaten cat.
In one case in 1996,Â the Knoxville, TennesseeÂ health department had to actually issue a denial towards an invisible rumor that frozen cats has been found in a local Chinese restaurant. The fear is always latent.
Soon to come, General Tso’s puppy! (you think I kid).
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