General Li Shao-zu, USA

General Li sitsQing Dynasty Army General; unofficial Second-in-Command of the 13th R.I. at the time of its spectacular victory against the Richmond Special Legionnaires at The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek.

b: 1787 (exact date unknown), Kuangtung Province, China
d: July 30, 1863, Washington, DC

(Scroll down to watch video!)

Because of the convoluted manner by which the Chinese of the period calculated leap year, Li’s precise date of birth was never properly established. This uncertainty extended to his parents, whose difference of opinion was expressed by the separate horoscopes each had made for him.

Left: Japanese rendering of a Chinese astrologer.  Right:  Ancient Chinese star chart.

The first, commissioned by his mother, recommended a life of grandiose martial pursuits.  The second, commissioned by his father, suggested a life spent humbly in quest of simple domestic accomplishments.  The contradictory nature of these two potential destinies burdened Li with an existential dilemma that would haunt him throughout his lifetime.

Although Li first joined the army at the age of six, for the next sixty years he fluctuated erratically between turns as a warrior and as a homebody.

opium war west gate attack

Scene from the First Opium War

During this time he fought on behalf of emperors Jiaqing, Daoguang, and Xianfeng in such conflicts as the White Lotus Rebellion, the first Opium War with England, and the Taiping Rebellion, eventually rising to the rank of General.

On the domestic side, he served as mayor of a small village, was married, ran a tea plantation, and fathered twelve children.

Men smoking opium

Men smoking opium

In 1854, returning from his most recent stint as a soldier, Li discovered that his wife had colluded his former enemy, the British, to become proprietress of an opium den.  Disgusted, Li left China to seek his fortune as a gold prospector in California.


Li’s San Francisco laundry

Laws banning the Chinese from filing mining claims were to frustrate this ambition, and Li was forced to seek a living else ways.  In mid 1855 he opened a laundry in downtown San Francisco.  This concern, which was in keeping with the domesticity criterion of his father’s horoscope, proved quite lucrative.

Watch an excerpt from the documentary dealing with Li’s life as a laundry magnate.

Word of the Civil War, however, had reignited his uncertainty regarding his path in life.  In July, Li traveled to Washington to offer his services to Lincoln.  But unable to gain an audience and low on funds, Li was compelled to return to the laundry business – this time catering to military units stationed in the area.  On April 27, 1862, while delivering cleaned uniforms to the 13th Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry, Li met Colonel Jonathan Franklin Hale.  Impressed by Li’s martial résumé, Hale invited him to join the 13th as second-in-command.

General Li as a launderer in Washington, DC, shortly before joining the 13th R.I.

General Li as a launderer in Washington, DC, shortly before joining the 13th R.I.

To the soldiers of the 13th Li became equal parts “father” and “warrior”, and thus, without consciously planning to do so, began for the first time to simultaneously fulfill the two destinies foretold by his seemingly incongruous horoscopes.  Li’s guidance and advice played an instrumental role in steering the 13th to its rendezvous with the Richmond Special Legionnaires at Pussy Willow Creek.  He ingeniously devised, along with Colonel Jonathan Hale, the remarkable strategy that would lead the regiment to victory on July 2, 1863.

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