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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
To be continued . . .
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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