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Zheng Yi Sao
The Pirate Queen that Hollywood Forgot
By Tanner Price
The world loves an underdog story. We see it time and again with the way writers create protagonists. An average Joe Nobody starts out with nothing and through his own strength, intelligence, and determination ends up with the world in the palm of his hand. People like this often become iconic characters in books, movies, and other forms of media. But there is one underdog story the entertainment industry has overlooked thus far: The story of Zheng Yi Sao, Feminine Terror of the South China Sea! Or at least that’s how Hollywood might market her story, should they ever decide to tell it. Regardless, one of the most incredible individuals throughout history may be completely unknown to billions of people around the world. But from this moment on, she will no longer be unknown to you. Prepare yourself for the life and times of Zheng Yi Sao, the charming young prostitute who rose to rule the eastern world.
We set our scene in Guangzhou (Canton), a bustling major port city in southern China. In the year 1801, a prominent pirate lord named Zheng Yi paid a visit to a floating brothel where his favorite pleasure girl worked.1 This time, however, he came to offer her much more than his love for the evening. The dreaded commander of the Red Flag Fleet proposed to the twenty-six-year-old whore and promised her an exciting life away from servitude. This alone would be an incredible offer for most girls of the prostitute’s status, but she was not impressed. She knew who Zheng Yi was, and she knew the golden opportunity that lay at her feet. The lady agreed to marry him, but only on the condition that he give her an equal share of his loot and treat her as an equal partner in running the Red Flag Fleet. Her shrewd business strategies and knowledge of how to control dangerous men made her a force to be reckoned with, and although Zheng Yi didn’t know it, his acceptance of her terms was the greatest decision of his piratical career. From that time on, they were married, and the common prostitute took her first steps to becoming the legendary Zheng Yi Sao.
Guangzhou and surrounding islands during First Opium War in 1841
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Before her name could strike fear into the hearts of nations, she first had to deal with problems closer to home. China’s pirates at the time were commissioned by the new Vietnamese government installed during the Tay Son Rebellion to act as privateers. Business was good, but only about as efficient as a dozen chickens without a head between them. No single leader could unify them under one flag and one organization, and in July 1802, when the Tay Son forces were destroyed, the pirates needed a leader more than ever. But they didn’t get a single leader. Instead, they got two: Zheng Yi as the figurehead pirates worshiped and feared, and his wife who ran his operations behind the scenes. These fractured gangs of predators became a mighty confederation of the six fearsome squadrons of Black, White, Green, Blue, Yellow, and the supreme Red Flags, all owing ultimate devotion to the Zheng family. By 1804, 400 junks and 70,000 men sailed under this combined fleet, and within a year, they had taken control of the entire Guangdong Province. The success orchestrated by this powerful couple was cut suddenly short by a typhoon in November 1807. Zheng Yi was lost to the storm, leaving Zheng Yi Sao, meaning “Widow of Zheng,” high and dry.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Most widows in her culture would have simply withdrawn to a chaste retirement, but Zheng Yi Sao was anything but a typical widow. She refused to allow a lesser man to assume her husband’s command and decided to take control of his forces herself as their new matriarch and sovereign leader. She was a woman in a world run by dangerous men, and the odds were certainly stacked against her. Nonetheless, Zheng Yi Sao was not a naïve schoolchild. She knew the only way to secure her position was through the support of Zheng Yi’s most powerful lieutenant – his adopted son, Zhang Bao (right). Zheng Yi Sao quickly seduced him, earning his devotion and, sometime later, his hand in marriage.
As an interesting sidenote, it may seem strange to twenty-first-century Western readers that Zheng Yi Sao would seduce her own adopted son so unhesitantly, but she was not the first pirate to do so. She was following the example set by Zheng Yi himself. When Zhang Bao had been kidnapped from his village, he was only a young boy. Over time, he demonstrated tremendous skill as a pirate and earned the trust of Zheng Yi, who repaid Zhang Bao’s service by making him a lieutenant, adopted son, and lover all in one. After Zheng Yi died in the typhoon, Zheng Yi Sao quickly filled the space he left behind. It is unknown if she had a romantic interest in either Zheng Yi or Zhang Bao (or if she was capable of feeling such emotions), but both marriages proved to be valuable strategic maneuvers, with each increasing her power and authority in the fleet.
Now that her rule over the pirates was confirmed, the next step was to make sure it would not be contested. She created a concise, brutal, and highly effective code of laws that kept her subordinates fearfully obedient to her. In most cases, if a pirate broke these laws or was under suspicion of doing so, that pirate would lose his head. To elaborate, some specific laws included the following.
Zheng Yi Sao was a merciless and brutal leader, but her position brought great benefit to the Red Flag Fleet’s wealth and power. Her business strategies were ambitious and expansive, working their way from the foundations of the fleet through their connections ashore until even the Emperor’s own bureaucrats were on her payroll. But as impressive as her reach became, this floating city, like Rome, wasn’t built in a day. She started by managing every mission and raid, letting the details of each operation pass through her ears. Nothing happened without her say-so, and all rewards and punishments were hers to give out. Zheng Yi Sao’s control over the crew was not limited only to the natural world. The best way to manage her pirates was to manipulate their religious beliefs, and she knew the perfect man for the job: the well-respected leader chosen by the gods – her very own husband, Zhang Bao.
- Disobedience of an order resulted in the pirate’s decapitation and his body thrown into the sea.
- Giving commands without a commander’s status, stealing from the fleet’s treasury, and robbing the villages that supplied the pirates all earned the same punishment.
- Deserting or being absent without leave would result in a pirate being paraded through the squadrons with her ears hacked off.
- Sexual misconduct, such as rape unpermitted by a commander, earned decapitation, and consensual sex on duty meant death for both parties.
- Captured women deemed to be unattractive would be released without harm, but the attractive ones could be divided between crews as loot or purchased as wives. If a pirate earned or purchased a wife, he was required to be faithful to her or else face execution by decapitation and having his body thrown into the sea.
Like most sailors in the South China Sea, the pirates of the six flag fleets were notoriously religious. Not a mission or raid went by when they did not plead to their gods for safety and good fortune. Some leaders might see this devout worship as an obstacle to securing the blind allegiance of their crew. As in many aspects of her career, where others would see an inconvenience, Zheng Yi Sao saw an opportunity. She had her husband build “a magnificent temple aboard one of his largest vessels.” (Murray, 152) This massive pagoda towered over the seas in tandem with the main fleet, and it became the center of ritual for the leaders before every mission. Before they burned incense and beseeched their gods for their holy favor, Zhang Bao met in secret with his priests to lay out plans for how the crew’s “gods” would respond. As fate would have it, the gods always seemed to smile on Zhang Bao’s crew, blessing them in their endeavors.
Chief mate of the Tay, Mr. Turner was taken captive by pirates from a cutter near Macao in 1806.
He remained a prisoner for five and a half months before a ransom of $2500 was paid.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Through this religious stability and validation of Zhang Bao’s divinely ordained leadership, morale in the fleets became soaringly high. Because of her brilliant strategy, Zheng Yi Sao had her crew under her thumb. But that was not to say she was not spiritual herself. Oddly enough, captives of her fleet claimed that she was very superstitious. One by the name of Richard Glasspoole wrote that she “sprinkled her captives with garlic water, which was believed to be protection against getting shot.” (Duncombe) The authors of Women Pirates and the Politics of the Jolly Roger claim that Zheng Yi Sao “never made decisions without first consulting a particular guardian spirit.” (Klausmann, 41) She would keep statues of this spirit on each of her ships, but which spirit she allegedly sought guidance from remains unknown.2
One thing is certain, though. Zheng Yi Sao was a master manipulator. But would her gift for manipulation and control take root on dry land and stretch her criminal empire throughout China? Many people believe a life of piracy is bursting at the seams with riches and loot with an individual’s own wealth determined by her initiative and prowess when conducting business. To an extent, these people would be correct, but in a fleet of tens of thousands of people, the distribution of funds is not always so enticing. Zheng Yi Sao had a reputation for being calculating and controlling, but also fair. Her code set out elaborate procedures for the division of loot and prizes, and one rule was that “Whichever ship captured the loot was entitled to retain 20% of its value, while the remaining 80% was placed into the fleet’s collective fund.” (Reese) Although this was by no means a meager allowance, the future of the six flag fleets’ financial stability could not rest solely upon the chance capture of prize vessels and the occasional raiding missions. To become truly powerful, the people on dry land needed reason to respect and fear her. Her success in that endeavor would rest on one key thing: financial dependency.
It started with salterns (pools of saltwater which produced salt when left to evaporate). The Guangdong region of China had twenty-two, but the most prosperous of these salterns were found near Tien-pai. Each year on four different occasions, large fleets would ship salt produced here to the bustling commerce center of Guangzhou, turning massive profits for the government. Zheng Yi Sao believed these resources could be better put to use for private enterprise – specifically hers. After all, would the government really miss 270 junks if they happened to endure a change of management? With only four salt junks left outside of the pirates’ control, Zheng Yi Sao’s fleet dominated the imperial salt lines and forced the captured crews aboard these junks to continue their operations, but on the pirates’ terms. In exchange for all the comforts of life with an unsevered head, salt merchants agreed to pay the pirates great sums of protection money in exchange for safe passage to Guangzhou. They were given “safe-conduct certificates at a standard rate of fifty Spanish silver dollars for each 100 pao of salt.” (Murray, 153) This offer soon extended to fishermen and other merchant junks with each paying between fifty and 500 Spanish silver dollars per voyage. By 1809, the villagers of the Pearl River Delta settlements were coughing up mountains of money and rice in exchange for not being annihilated. This lucrative extortion became so plentiful that collecting the money during each visit ceased to be cost-effective. Instead, Zheng Yi Sao installed tax offices and financial centers in both major and minor port cities to collect her protection fees. The headquarters of her exploitation was based in Macao, where her representatives would sell safe-conduct certificates to fishermen and shippers in exchange for weapons and ammunition.
But this financial network seems awfully one-sided. Was there anything to gain for those who supplied the pirates besides another guaranteed night on Earth? Once again, Zheng Yi Sao was a fair woman, and her fleets depended on these supply depots. In exchange for provisions of water, rice, gunpowder, tung oil, places to fence their prizes, and other daily necessities, the pirates worked hard to ensure alliances with onshore society. In many small villages where a variety of goods was difficult to come by, the six flag fleets brought delicacies, luxuries, and oddities from far off lands, which they sold to locals for modest prices. They were also more than willing to pay generously for the services provided by villagers to maintain the strength of their operations. Like any skilled diplomats, these pirates knew a few generous gifts to the right people would go a long way in establishing relationships. Before long, local politicians were on the take, and the corruption only grew from there. Not only did the pirates secure footholds amongst merchants, farmers, laborers, and government officials, but they also traded local information and intelligence with Guangdong’s secret societies and bandit gangs. These pirates truly had influence over every aspect of Chinese coastal life.
Chinese war junks (Source: Nautical Illustrations, Dover 2003)
The criminal empire Zheng Yi Sao built was illustrious, but ambitious rulers like her had met their premature dooms before. There was never a moment to truly rest or abandon her duties. Millions of people wanted to see her operations splinter and fall, and she needed to keep that from happening by any means necessary. As a brilliant strategist and commander-in-chief of the confederation, she had her crews trained to the point where they were “intrepid in attack, desperate in defense, and unyielding before a superiority of numbers.” (Murray, 154) Ship by ship, fortress by fortress, town by town, all who resisted the six flag fleets were decimated. Her forces became so powerful that Imperial Chinese Navy personnel took to sabotaging their own ships to prevent them from confronting the pirates at sea. Even dishonor seemed a better alternative than death from Zheng Yi Sao’s fleet.
But by 1809, imperial government officials had had enough. Zheng Yi Sao’s fleet was considered to be unstoppable and China could not stand against her on its own. The time had come for international help. Although the Chinese government despised Westerners and considered them to be “barbarians,” they enlisted the aid of British, Portuguese, and Dutch war vessels to combat the tyranny in their own seas. The Imperial Chinese Navy would never have agreed to such alliances if they had not been absolutely desperate, and Zheng Yi Sao saw the weakness of her enemies clearer than ever. No amount of force could stop her. Her fleets were better trained, better armed, better supplied, and more numerous than any who stood in her way. For the next two years, Zheng Yi Sao won battle after battle until the government realized that further attempts to fight her reign would only lead to more slaughter. They chose instead to save their own lives by offering her and most of her crew amnesty.
It was true that her criminal empire was strong and powerful, but even after rejecting the government’s offer, Zheng Yi Sao had to evaluate whether she had built a fleet strong enough to sustain itself without her and Zhang Bao. The years of expansion and growth had given rise to new power struggles between fleet leaders, who searched for ways to seize ultimate control for themselves. The Green Flag Fleet even took it so far as to wage open rebellion against the Red Flag Fleet in a storm of envy over their influence, power, and special treatment. The Green Flag Fleet suffered a grueling loss and decided to accept the offer of amnesty from Macao, greatly reducing Zheng Yi Sao’s numbers. This prompted her to do some heavy contemplation.
Without her, would the Red Flag Fleet and the four others still under her control survive? After how far they had come, would it be better to topple the Qing Dynasty itself or accept lives with amnesty and all the wealth and power they had earned through piracy? Not only was she having to consider the future of herself, but also those of her tens of thousands of subordinates who depended on her. While surrender with full amnesty would be good enough for someone on the losing side of a war, Zheng Yi Sao knew she could get a better deal and began an intense series of negotiations with the government that seemed to be getting nowhere due to the stubbornness of both parties. However, after several weeks in stalemate, Zheng Yi Sao surprised everyone by arriving alone and unarmed at the home of the Governor General of Guangzhou to negotiate a peace treaty face-to-face.
One way or another, an accord was reached, and it was agreed that most of her fleets would disband. Only 376 of her crew would face punishment for their crimes while she and the rest would be allowed to keep all wealth they had accumulated with full legal pardon. Former pirates would be allowed to pursue careers as soldiers in the military, and a fund was created to help Zheng Yi Sao finance the transition of her loyal crew “from a life at sea, to one in the mainland.” (Hiskey) And the cherry on top? The criminal mastermind Zheng Yi Sao earned the noble title of “Lady by Imperial Decree” and was cemented firmly and legally into the aristocracy. She was only thirty-five years old when she retired from piracy, but her career had been wildly more successful than any of her Western peers.
Although Zheng Yi Sao’s life after retirement was much less fast-paced and exciting, the fact that she lived long enough to even retire is commendable in and of itself. Blackbeard was beheaded in combat; Captain Kidd was hanged over the Thames River. But a young, female, former prostitute and pirate queen of common birth in China outlived them all and earned the life of luxury they never did. After accepting her place in high society, she settled down in her home city of Guangzhou where she became the proud owner of a brothel and gambling hall. She became a mother and grandmother, undoubtedly telling some of the greatest bedtime stories of all time, and died peacefully at the old age of sixty-nine.
I will never understand why Hollywood and American pop culture treat phenomenal non-white female figures with such neglect as to deprive the world of an incredible life story that could easily be turned into a blockbuster feature film. I grew up idolizing pirates like Blackbeard and Jean Laffite, but if I had ever heard of Zheng Yi Sao before I started pursuing independent research on piracy, she would have inspired me from a young age with a thousand unexpected moral messages: Anyone can be successful; a powerful leader can come from anywhere; women can be strong and smart and brave; you don’t have to be white to become a legend, and so on. I may be a young white man whose only role model in the world is a Chinese female prostitute and pirate, but I know that American society could greatly benefit from learning more about this marvelous woman. Whether or not what Zheng Yi Sao did was morally good or right, even given her situation, she was an empowering and inspiring historical figure who I have come to truly adore. I hope someday Hollywood will see her the way I do and let young girls know that this is not only a white man’s world. Any of us can rise to greatness. All we need is a little determination, initiative, and creativity, and we can accomplish anything.
1. According to Maraan et al., Zheng Yi Sao was a Guangzhou commoner whose real name of Shi Xianggu history has largely forgotten. Diane Murray, a historian who is an authority on Zheng Yi Sao, never once uses this name in her writings and says that this woman’s real name is unknown.
2. Personally, I think the notion that such a cunning strategic leader who manipulated her own crew’s religious beliefs would be deeply spiritual herself is highly unbelievable. I recommend taking that speculation with a grain of salt, but perhaps a guardian spirit truly did help guide her toward success. Unfortunately, we may never know for sure.
Duncombe, Laura Sook. “Cheng I Sao, the Vicious Pirate Who Banned Rape in Her 50,000-Man Fleet,” Jezebel (9 December 2014).
Hiskey, Daven. “The Female Prostitute That Rose to Become One of the Most Powerful Pirates in History and Whose Armada Took on the Chinese, British, and Portuguese Navies . . . and Won,” Today I Found Out (13 June 2012).
Klausmann, Ulrike, Marion Meinzerin, & Gabriel Kuhn. Women Pirates and the Politics of the Jolly Roger. Black Rose Books,1997.
Maraan, J., Y. Kang, V. Nguyen, & T. Footner. “Ching Shih: The Pirate Queen Who Ruled the South China Sea,” April Magazine (13 December 2017).
Murray, Dian. “One Woman's Rise to Power: Cheng I’s Wife and the Pirates,” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques 8:3 (Fall 1981), 147-161.
Reese, M. R. “Ching Shih – from Prostitute to Pirate Lord,” Ancient Origins (25 May 2018).
Tanner Price is a writer and tall ship sailor with previous publications in Culture Clash Magazine and SeaSpray Literary Journal in Galveston, Texas. He is a lifelong pirate enthusiast with dreams of pursuing a lifetime of adventure comparable to the Golden Age of Sail.
Copyright © 2019 Tanner Price
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