Unruly Figures
Unruly Figures
Episode 21: Zheng Yi Sao

Episode 21: Zheng Yi Sao

The story of China's famous pirate queen

I am SO EXCITED for y’all to hear this week’s episode on Zheng Yi Sao, China’s famous pirate queen and one of the most successful pirates of all time.

Have you told anyone about Unruly Figures yet? This is a great episode to get someone hooked.


Crystal Yu plays Zheng Yi Sao in a 2022 episode of Doctor Who. Source.

🎙️ Transcript

Hey everyone, welcome to Unruly Figures, the podcast that celebrates history’s greatest rule-breakers. I’m your host, Valorie Clark, and today I’m covering Zheng Yi Sao, the famous pirate queen and the most successful pirate of all time. 

But before we jump into her life and how she became the most powerful pirate in the China Sea, I want to give a huge thank you to all the paying subscribers on Substack who make this podcast possible. Y’all are the best and this podcast wouldn’t be possible without you! If you want to support Unruly Figures and my mission to make interesting history free, you can do that at unrulyfigures.substack.com Becoming a paying subscriber will also give you access to exclusive content, subscriber-only polls, merch, and behind-the-scenes info on the podcast.

Also, Zheng Yi Sao was suggested to me by literally dozens of people. Normally I try to acknowledge when someone suggests an episode, but I eventually stopped writing down names for this one. Sorry! But if you want to suggest a topic for a future episode, you can do that on the Substack! 

All right, let’s hop back in time. 

You might know her as Ching Shih, or Zheng Yisao, or maybe just Madame Ching. She has had a lot of names throughout history because, well, the thing is, Zheng Yi Sao just means “Wife of Zheng Yi.” For a long time, we didn’t know her real name, though I recently learned from Professor Ronald C. Po in the BBC podcast “You’re Dead to Me” that we think her birth name was Shi Yang and that she was born around 1775. But beyond that, we don’t know much–we’re not sure where she was born or who her parents were or if she had siblings. I feel like I say that a lot in these episodes, but this is what happens when we’re talking about basically everyone born pre-1900. There just wasn’t the same thorough documentation of every single person born, and so even when normal people did something that landed them in the historical record, sometimes early details just don’t get recorded. 

We enter Zheng Yi Sao’s story, then, when she’s already an adult and living in a coastal city. 

Chinese culture at this point was usually a pretty strictly Confucian culture, which, among other things, meant that women were meant to stay home and take care of the family while men went out and worked. But among the lower classes and in coastal cities, like where and how Zheng Yi Sao probably lived, this moral standard was more relaxed because it simply wasn’t possible. If everyone in a family wanted to eat, they needed two incomes, or more. Along the Chinese coastline, women sailed alongside men. Women who lived on the coast often piloted sampans, a small boat that looks a little like a raft, selling necessities to people who lived full-time on boats. 

And some entire families did live on ships for most of the year. They lived together and worked  together on their ships–so I think we can leave behind the European belief that having women on ships is bad luck, which we saw a little of in the Anne Bonny episode. 

Now China was actually in a period of huge prosperity here. The 18th century had seen a lot of rapid population growth and the empire itself was politically very stable. Emperor Qianlong, one of the most successful rulers of the entire Qing dynasty, was expanding borders and overseeing a time of great economic growth. Trade with Britain and other European powers was especially strong at this point, meaning that exports of silk, porcelain, and tea were at an all time high. Money was pouring into the hands of merchants, and ships weighed down with incredibly valuable cargo were sailing in and out of Canton, in Southern China, at an incredible rate. Canton, and the region it’s in–Guangdong–are often seen as the terminus as the maritime Silk Road because so much trade was passing through there. 

Even though things were looking good for the Emperor, life for the average person was getting a little worse. Qianlong had a habit of spending money from the royal coffers on himself, and other members of the government started following suit, leaving less for communal resources for the common people. Professor Ronald C. Po in the “You’re Dead to Me” BBC podcast pointed out that “a dangerously unequal distribution of wealth and a sudden increase in the cost of living,” was really hurting regular people throughout China at the close of the 18th century. Local revolts and rebellions across China had popped up in response 

This led to the somewhat unique phenomenon of piracy as a sort of seasonal job. During the high fishing seasons, good sailors might have worked legitimate jobs fishing, but then when the fish migrated, that work wasn’t as available, they turned to piracy to eat and make ends meet. So as the eighteenth century became the nineteenth, our heroine’s future husband, Zheng Yi, and his crew of sailors became pirates. They started out stealing food, but they ended up being so good at theft that they got more daring. They started stealing silks, spices, and gold, and were soon making enough money that their one ship became a small fleet.

At the same time, the bustling trade in the port of Canton led to another unique feature of life in China at this point: Flower boats. It sounds very cute and sweet, right? Well they were basically floating brothels. I’m honestly sort of surprised no one else thought of this during the Golden Age of Piracy in Europe and the Americas. Anyway! The flower boats were places where women entertained men with music, dancing, drinking, and sex. (As a side note, opium hadn’t been brought to China yet, but it soon would.) 

Our heroine, Shi Yang, worked in one of these flower boats. It’s unclear what her role was on board–a lot of people just assume she was a prostitute. She might have been, or she might have been a singer or dancer or played games or served drinks. There’s no way to know for sure. 

Using her position on the flower, she starts to…expand her responsibilities. She begins befriending–or maybe just liquoring up–some of the wealthier clients that come on board. She starts getting secrets out of them and then trading those secrets to other wealthy people. This gave her a little extra money, and probably also increased her own power on this ship and within this maritime culture. 

Which is great, because her life is about to change hugely and her own sense of initiative is going to be very helpful. It was in 1800 or 1801, when Shi Yang was in her early to mid-twenties, that the most famous pirate of her age came on board her flower boat. 

There’s a romantic tale of their meeting that is almost certainly apocryphal, but I’m going to repeat it here because it’s charming in a dastardly, bodice-ripper romance novel kind of way. I got this version from Laura Sook Duncombe’s book Pirate Women, if you want to peruse it for yourself. So, they say that Zheng Yi was a wealthy-ish pirate who already had a son. His first wife had died, so he was in search of a new one. He sent a few of his men to the nearest flower boat and had them kidnap the most beautiful prostitutes on board so he could pick one as his wife. When the women were brought to him, our heroine clearly outshone them all, so he immediately proposed to her. When she was untied and ungagged so she could answer him, she flew into a rage and lunged at him, trying to claw his eyes out. 

Of course, this display of ferocity only endeared Zheng Yi to her and he now begged her to be his wife. He promised her jewels and silks and a life of luxury if she wed him. She looked around at his probably sumptuous captain’s room on his ship and said she would marry him if, and only if, he gave her half of his ships and half of his wealth. He accepted, so she accepted and the two were wed in 1801. 

It’s almost certainly made up, but it has a kind of romance to it, right? Other versions of their meeting have Zheng Yi meeting her on board her flower boat and falling in love immediately. Again the promises of wealth and luxury, again the bargain, again the marriage. Sometimes he visited her several times, falling in love with her slowly until she made him promise to marry her and steal her away. It’s well-documented that Shi Yang was very ambitious herself, so maybe she somehow convinced him that she was a good investment–she had proven herself capable of getting secrets out of other wealthy people, after all, and that investment might have been worth something. The bargain though–half his ships and half his wealth–is almost always a part of the story, probably to explain what would happen soon after. 

But the thing is… I have to assume there’s love involved here. As we’ll see, Zheng Yi wasn’t just looking for a mom for Zheng Yi Junior, or a servant to cook and clean. After they married, Zheng Yi Sao became a real partner for him and proved herself to be an invaluable addition to the crew. 

Soon after they were wed, the couple was approached by the one surviving leader of the Vietnamese Tay Son rebellion: Nguyen Hue. The Tay Son rebellion had been going on for about 25 years by this point and was sort of choking on its last dying breaths. It had started strong with three Nguyen brothers leading the peasants in central and northern Vietnam in a rebellion for better rights and more local power. The brothers had initially established themselves as feudal states with a sort of monarchical structure, but by 1801, when Nguyen Hue approached Zheng Yi, most of it had fallen to infighting, greed, and bad management. 

Nguyen Hue hired the pirates to fight for them, providing them with money, weapons and–most importantly–training. Through a quick and intense training, he transformed them from a ragtag group of thieves into an elite fighting force, capable of fighting together instead of just fighting. 

The Tay Son rebellion was eventually crushed, and in 1802 the pirates were sent back to China at sort of a loose end. They could keep stealing, of course, but without a unified goal infighting started. The large group split into various bands, with various pirates rebelling against Zheng Yi and deciding to strike out on their own. 

It’s unclear what Zheng Yi and Zheng Yi Sao were doing for the next few years, but in 1805 they had a plan and went to execute: They created a confederation of pirates. Clearly the militaristic atmosphere of the fighting in Vietnam had worked for them, so the Zheng couple emulated it. It’s important to note that while Zheng Yi remained a figurehead at this point, Zheng Yi Sao was really the one handling the logistics. And isn’t that how it always goes? The husband is the head but the wife controls the neck? Hmmm.They tempted everyone back into the fold, creating six fleets, each with their own commander. The six fleets were classified by the color of flag they flew–red, black, green, yellow, blue, and white. Zheng Yi’s personal fleet was the red fleet, and then captains of the other fleets reported back to him. I’m not going to go through the leaders of each fleet, but I do want to just note that the commander of the black fleet was the notorious pirate Kuo P'o-Tai. He not only had an incredibly fierce reputation, but he was also a great lover of literature, and his ship was famous for its, quote, “impressive library.”

As WorldHistory.org describes, quote, 

The commanders operated in previously agreed lanes so as not to get in each other's way and the coloured flags were particularly useful when sailing at the edges of these zones or when target vessels were being pursued through two or more zones. When a pirate ship came across another ship flying the agreed colour flag for that area, the captain knew it was a fellow member of the confederation and so did not attack it or interfere with an ongoing pursuit.

So this is the structure they built up, and it worked really well. The flight was becoming quite wealthy and was close to unstoppable. The ships they used were called junks, which could carry up to 800 pounds of cargo and 40 canons. They were particularly excellent for approaching coastal cities because they had, quote, “a flat bottom and a very high stern; their rudder could be raised which allowed them to enter shallow waters other large ships could not.” Bigger junks could even carry longboats that could be lowered into the water and transport men in for a sneak attack. I’ll include a photo in the transcript so you can see it for yourself. 

Thankfully, ships called junks were not actually pieces of junk. Souce.

They attacked ships, of course, and didn’t really care whose flag the ship flew. If it was a Chinese ship, they sometimes press-ganged the crew into service, and they sold the goods they stole to European merchants at a discount. The merchants, of course, tended to turn a blind eye on this practice, except when the pirates attacked European ships and kidnapped European crews to ransom them back to their country. 

However, there are lots of records indicating that Chinese sailors who were taken in an attack were frequently tortured after they were captured–either to force them to reveal where more valuables were or simply, quote, “on a sadistic whim.” End quote. But there are no records of Europeans being tortured when captured in similar attacks. It’s unclear why–perhaps the pirates thought they would get less money if the kidnapees were injured? Perhaps they thought injuring them would be a step too far and foreign governments would see it as an act of war? Zheng Yi was paying Chinese government officials to turn a blind eye on their violence, but maybe they couldn’t do the same with officials from other countries? I’m not quite sure where the discrepancy in treatment is coming from. 

The account of John Turner, an English sailor, describes some of this torture of Chinese sailors  vividly. He was taken captive by Zheng Yi’s crew from a British ship sailing from India in 1806. He wrote a 20-page account of his experience in 1809. If descriptions of violence turn your stomach, maybe skip ahead about 45 seconds. According to Turner, a Chinese captive on board was, quote, “fastened to the deck by large nails, which were inhumanly driven through his feet, and was then beaten with four rattans twisted together, till he vomited blood. After remaining for some time in the most excruciating pain, he was taken on shore, and cut into several pieces.” According to Professor Ronald C. Po, this was a punishment reserved for members of the Chinese Imperial Navy, though Turner doesn’t make that distinction. It’s probable that since he didn’t speak any of the Chinese dialects he just didn’t realize that was who these people were. It’s also totally possible that Turner is exaggerating the lurid details to sell more copies of his book! Either way, Turner’s treatment was not nearly so violent–he ate the same food as the crew and wasn’t harmed, though his sleeping arrangements left a lot to be desired. After several months on board the ship, Turner was finally ransomed for 2500 dollars, a huge amount–though they had initially asked for ten thousand. Perhaps understandingly, Turner’s account of this whole experience is titled “The Sufferings of John Turner,” and you can read it for free online for the University of California San Diego. 

In addition to kidnapping merchants and stealing expensive products, the pirates also began to attack actual military fortresses, overwhelming them through sheer numbers. By this point, the Zheng couple had at least three hundred ships sailing under the combined command of all their fleets, and each ship could hold over a hundred people, so we’re talking about seventy thousand men that were under their command. This is still a part-time job for some of these folks, by the way–like they might be fisherman in the morning, go home and have lunch, then go to their evening job on board these pirate ships, or they’d be home for one season then on board a pirate ship for another season. So it wasn’t 70,000 folks at all times, but still–now you get why it’s so easy for them to just steal from fortresses using sheer numbers alone. You probably didn’t even have to be a good fighter, you just had to show up! From the fortresses, they would steal cannons, cannonballs, and gunpowder for use in the rest of their naval conflicts. 

In the process of these kidnappings, the pirates would occasionally end up with women on board. According to Turner, if they were beautiful they might be held as wives or concubines for the captains, but the rest would be returned home or ransomed, if they thought her family was rich. He makes a note that captains of the ships might have three or more wives and concubines, but that, quote, “once made the choice of a wife, they are obliged to be constant to her, no promiscuous intercourse being allowed amongst them.” Which I think is kind of an interesting limit. This is the kind of small little detail that keeps me coming back to history. Each culture establishes their own rules of acceptability, and those rules are ever-shifting. And we can infer a lot about the past from learning what their rules were, like this one saying that polygamous relationships were acceptable, in a one-way for-men-only sort of sense, but lying and cheating wasn’t. It straddles the line of what today we’d call ethical non-monogamy, because while men could be punished for cheating on their three wives, women didn’t really have a choice in the matter–if their husband took a second or third wife, it seems like women had to accept that, at least outwardly. So it’s uneven, for sure, but there are still limits on what men are allowed to do that are being imposed on them by society at large, not just by religion. 

Speaking of women on board… If you’re familiar with the practice of foot-binding, you might be asking yourself if Zheng Yi Sao had her feet bound. If you’re unfamiliar, foot-binding is when a girl’s feet are broken at the toes and arch and then bent and bound into a much smaller shape in order to make the foot permanently smaller. The goal was three inches, the “golden lotus” foot, though most people did not achieve this. This was practiced for a thousand years–it has its roots in the 10th century and wasn’t banned until the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. And for a lot of that time, it was considered the height of eroticism, and contemporary Chinese love and sex manuals had, quote, “copious notes on how to use the bound foot as a pleasure tool, complete with explicit artwork.” A woman with bound feet could walk, but with a very unsteady gait. It was a practice largely reserved for the wealthy, because women with bound feet couldn’t work! Though it did trickle down to lower classes, and sometimes a woman’s foot might be unbound after marriage, though I don’t know that it would ever truly heal back to what it would have been if it had never been bound. 

Considering that Zheng Yi Sao worked as a courtesan in the flower boats, I think we can assume that she probably didn’t come from a wealthy family and therefore she probably didn’t have bound feet. In fact, I suspect that there probably weren’t a lot of women with bound feet on ships, to be honest. There’s not really evidence either way, but I just keep thinking about how hard it can be to walk on an unsteady ship today even if you’re wearing shoes meant for! If these women were already unsteady on their feet, I think that would have only been made worse with a ship actively shifting beneath them. It doesn’t seem safe. But who knows? 

I mentioned a son earlier. There is a little debate about the timing of this but basically at some point, this power couple adopted a child named Chang Pao. I say child–the boy was a teenager by this point. A lot of what I’ve read said that this happened before Zheng Yi married Shi Yang, but Professor Po is saying in that podcast I mentioned earlier that they were already married when they adopted him. If true, it might be because Zheng Yi Sao wasn’t able to birth kids of her own for some reason and the couple wanted a son who could inherit their pirate kingdom. This was a real thing, by the way–in European piracy we don’t really think of piracy as a job that’s passed down, but it was in China, much like other family businesses. 

Now, there’s some, well, uncomfortable rumors and realities connected to this. Trigger warning for mentions of sexual violence for the next minute or so. So, I didn’t see this reported in a lot of places, but there’s some speculation to be had about the nature of the relationship between Zheng Yi, Pirate King, and Chang Pao. According to the World Encyclopedia, Chang Pao became Zheng Yi’s son and lover in one fell swoop. Chang Pao may have been kidnapped initially, and historian D. Cordingly notes, quote, 

it was not unusual to take captives and force them to join the pirate community by means of sexual assaults…[consequently] it is difficult to know to what extent homosexuality was willingly practised between the participants, and to what extent it was forced on captives by pirate leaders.

Cordingly is writing more generally than just Zheng Yi, of course, so this isn’t necessarily accusing Zheng Yi of anything, but it is worth noting that this is a possibility. I hope it’s not the case, and there’s evidence to suggest that it’s not, but I also don’t want to say it definitely isn’t. This may have been a consensual affair. The World Encyclopedia notes that in reviewing just Chinese trial records from 1796 to 1800, fifty known cases of same-sex affairs between male pirates appear, and Turner possibly alludes to this as well in his account of his captivity published in 1809. After talking about the captains taking concubines from kidnapped women, he also says, quote, “but the greater part of the crew were satisfied without women.” It’s a bit of a throwaway line in his account so it’s hard to tell exactly what he means, but ‘satisfied’ has been a euphemism for ‘orgasm’ for a pretty long time. 

Regardless of how the nature of this relationship started or how consensual it was, Zheng Yi seems to have been playing favorites with Chang Pao, designating him as his heir to this 70,000 strong pirate empire. He’s being trained to lead. And Zheng Yi Sao is also doting on him like a mother might, so that seems to be the nature of his relationship with her, at least for now. 

Then, in 1807, tragedy struck. It’s unclear how, but Zheng Yi died in November of 1807. He was either thrown overboard and drowned during a typhoon, or was killed by a cannonball during fighting. Both stories are equally repeated. 

Now, because Chinese seafaring culture was hazardous, in the case of one spouse dying, it wasn’t uncommon for the remaining spouse to take over their responsibilities. But the stakes were pretty high here–this is not a normal situation. It was a potentially dangerous moment for Zheng Yi Sao. Without a husband, she could be thrown off the ship, someone else could take over. So she does the smart thing and secures the support of two of her late husband’s leading commanders for her to replace her husband as the most powerful person on the ships. As I mentioned before she’s probably been the one actually handling all the logistics all this time anyway, so it probably wasn’t too difficult to get their support. 

That said, she realizes that Zheng Yi had been a good figurehead and that she needs another one, so she promotes their adopted son, Chang Pao, to become the commander of the red fleet, which is still the strongest of the six squadrons they had created a few years before. He had already been being trained for this anyway, and he’s loyal to her, so it’s perfect. 

But to really secure this alliance, she marries Chang Pao. As a reminder, they are not actually related, though this is still sort of unusual family dynamics. And he benefitted too–he got to be the new Pirate King without having to handle all the management, paperwork, and logistics. He has big warrior-not-a-scholar energy, you know? So they’re both getting a lot out of this. 

For the record, female leadership wasn’t completely unheard of in Chinese culture. China had had an empress before, but it had been a while since Empress Wu, about 1100 years to be exact, so Zheng Yi Sao leading this pirate army was a bit unusual. So having Chang Pao as a new figurehead did help her secure her own power, but I also suspect that the fact that she was also present and in charge for a few years before her husband died also helped. 

One of the first things Zheng Yi Sao does is start establishing a passport system. Merchants had long paid the pirates off for protection, but now she creates a formal passport system instead of just trying to remember who was up on their dues. We saw passport, but it’s more of a protection racket–merchants would pay for a certificate of safe passage before going out on their journey, which would guarantee them safety both from Zheng’s pirates and from anyone else. Because, remember, this fleet is the biggest one in the South China Sea, but it’s not the only one. 

After decided to start changing for protection, Zheng Yi Sao went a step further: She basically invented subscription services! Merchants could buy safe passage one journey at a time, or they could buy an annual passport, which was more upfront but less expensive in the long run. I’m obsessed with this fact, it’s so amusing to me that she was out here giving bargains on protection money. Imagine someone in the Godfather doing the same thing. Incredible. The best part is that it worked–I guess humans have always loved a bargain. It was kept quiet at the time, but even the British East India Company was paying Zheng Yi Sao protection fees! It was important to them that their merchandise, especially tea, got through her seas unscathed, so they just bought an annual subscription for all of their ships sailing in and out of Canton. She eventually began selling these passports to coastal towns too, so entire towns were both exempt from being pillaged and also protected by the pirates from other threats. In these towns, she set up essentially passport offices, where people could go to get their papers so they didn’t have to, like, sail out to find her. She’s basically her own separatist government unto herself at this point. 

On board her ships, she was also making changes. She began by establishing some strict law codes on her pirate army. For instance, pirates who went on shore alone could have their ears sliced off in front of the crew, and if they did it again they could be killed. Men could be immediately killed for disobeying a superior officer. If they were found to have raped a captive, that was also punishable by death. But if you think she ruled solely through fear, she also had them pledge loyalty to an overarching system instead of their local captain. So it helped keep them loyal to her. Then, to reinforce that loyalty, she established interesting religious practices on board the ships. 

Before every mission, they burned incense and the gods were consulted for their opinion on the mission. This is one of the many ways that Chang Pao so helpful to her: He pre-arranged the “responses” from the gods in order to ensure that the so-called “omens” always favored whatever move Zheng Yi Sao wanted to make next. Thirty years later, Karl Marx would write that “Religion is the opium of the people” and I think this is a pretty good example of that. 

She also instituted a practice where after consulting the gods, but before the pirates actually went out on the mission, they would drink a brew made with wine and gunpowder for energy. This had the added benefit of helping them establish a fearsome reputation because even then people knew that drinking gunpowder was an insane idea. But they did it.

Zheng Yi Sao began to assert control over everyone’s finances by creating a communal pot, which we saw something similar in the Anne Bonny episode as well. But Zheng Yi Sao also started dividing up the booty they stole more fairly. 20% went to whoever was involved in seizing it, and the remainder went to a communal treasury which she then paid paychecks out of. So even if you were having an off week, weren’t very successful at pirating, you still got paid. And of course, if a pirate was caught stealing from the loot, they could be killed immediately. 

One more way a pirate could be killed (and I know you were wondering “how else could people be given the death penalty?”) was if they slept with someone and then didn’t marry them! Both participants were killed actually–men were beheaded and women were tossed overboard with weights attached to her legs. We’re talking about consensual sex here–she was even more against pre-marital sex than the Baptists, which makes me wonder about this idea that she was a prostitute before marrying Zheng Yi. Was this restriction put down to protect women that they encountered? To discourage anyone having loyalty to someone besides Zheng Yi Sao? I couldn’t find an explanation for why this rule was in place, but yeah. If a pirate had sex with someone, they had to get married the next morning. Them’s the breaks.   

Meanwhile, Zheng Yi Sao realizes that there’s money to be made somewhere else: Salt. In southwest Guangdong province, there were around 20 salt farms. Yes, sea salt used to be farmed along the Chinese coast, and still is farmed, though not always on beachfront property.  Now, Zheng Yi Sao is not about to start farming–she starts attacking the fleet that transports the salt. Before she set her eyes on them, the Chinese government had about 270 salt ships; pretty soon after she decided she wanted to be in the salt business, she had 266 salt ships under her control and the government had 4. To be clear, they did not start farming, cleaning, and packaging the salt themselves. The same people who had been on board these ships before were still on board these ships, they were just doing things on Zheng Yi Sao’s terms now, instead of the government’s. It was basically a hostile corporate takeover, except she did a much better job with it than Musk seems to be doing with Twitter–she didn’t have to lay off half the staff at least. 

Remember what I said about how China was doing really well earlier? Well, things were starting to fall apart. While the Emperor of China was focused on making money and territorial expansion west into Asia, the Navy was not at its best. It was not fun to be a member of the Chinese navy at this time. The highlights were terrible food, aggressive punishments, and poor pay. So even though the Emperor was watching the theft of the entire salt industry and thinking he’d sure like to stop her, the Navy was too weak to do much. And of course the weaker they were, the easier it was for Zheng to steal their ships and recruit their sailors–it’s a classic negative feedback loop for these guys. By 1805, the pirates outnumbered the Navy 3:1, and it seems like that ratio just kept sliding less and less into the navy’s favor. According to Professor Po, the imperial navy spent a lot of time at anchor and making excuses about how the weather was unfavorable for them to go out and fight. Like, for years, the wind was just bad for years. Obviously the Emperor knew this wasn’t the case–the pirates were sailing, after all–but he couldn’t do much about it because he didn’t have the resources. 

Feeling perhaps even more ambitious than before, Zheng Yi Sao set her sights on inland cities. The coastal cities had mostly paid her off, and the Navy was basically defeated, so in 1809 she set her sights on the actual city of Canton. She had some of her pirates very politely post a notice around the city saying, “hey, we’re going to attack you,” which sent the city into a complete panic. Their reputation for violence has spread far and wide by this point, so it was a very effective intimidation tactic–it got people to either run or join her. Her attack on Canton ended up being very successful, in terms of getting everything she wanted, so a few weeks later she did the same thing in Macau, where she steals the ship belonging to the Portuguese governor of Timor, plus five American ships, and blockades a Thai diplomatic mission. Salt and piracy and her own country’s Navy apparently weren’t enough, so she starts taking on other countries. 

So remember when I said that she was basically setting herself up as a separatist government unto herself? Yeah, at this point, everyone else begins to see her that way too. European powers until this point had kind of accepted paying her bribes as a reality but now she’s gone too far. And the Chinese government looks around and is like “Wait, she’s beat our navy, she’s set up her own tax offices and passport system, and has begun to dominate the economy. This is unacceptable.” They began to view her not as a nuisance, but as a rebel. 

So the Chinese government goes to the Americans, the English, and the Portuguese and asks for aid in defeating Zheng Yi Sao. They offer to open up more ports to trade, which if you know anything about Chinese history is going to turn out to be a very bad decision for China–do the words Opium Wars ring a bell? But that’s still in the future and no one sees it coming yet. For now all four governments are tired of dealing with Zheng Yi Sao’s floating fortresses, so they agree to send help. But it doesn’t work. Even though all of these powers are sending in their best and their brightest, so to speak, Zheng Yi Sao’s pirate fleet is able to defeat them all handily. This is her home turf, she’s unbeatable. 

Faced with this, the Chinese government goes in a different direction. The Emperor knows he doesn’t have the navy to defeat the pirates nor even the resources to build up his navy, so he goes with divide and conquer. He sends people to approach individual squadrons from her fleet and offer them basically a really nice military pension if they’ll retire. He even gives some of them official titles so they can move up in the world. And it works! The commander of the black fleet goes first, and that was a big blow because it was the second largest fleet after the red fleet, which Chang Pao was still in command of. Black and Red had long worked together in both fighting and the protection racketeering game and so to lose that support was significant.

Now, you might be thinking that, like many pirates, Zheng Yi Sao is going to hold on until the very end and go out in a blaze of glory, like her first husband did. And my friend, you would be wrong. She’s in her thirties by now, she’s been at sea at least ten years, spent nine of them commanding a pirate fleet. So she looks around, counts her chickens so to speak and decides she’s ready to retire. 

So in 1810, she walked into the governor general’s headquarters in Canton and was basically like, “Hey, it’s me, your girl, I’m ready to make a deal.” I’m not kidding, she really did this. It’s not clear if she was alone–I imagine she had some of her most trusted pirate warriors with her, and probably at least one weapon on her if not more. But I also would believe it if she was alone, because by this point she was so feared in China that I think even if she was surrounded by a hundred people, they still might not have attacked her. 

They tentatively accept her…resignation, I guess. The government entered into negotiations with Zheng Yi Sao but they stalled over disagreements about who would own the ships after this was done. Zheng Yi Sao retreats to her ship, things go back to the way they were for a couple of weeks. But remember, at least one entire squadron from her fleet has defected for a cushy retirement, and she was probably expecting more of them to do the same, so she tried again. 

A few weeks later, she entered the governor general's headquarters for the second time. This time she is unarmed, history is fairly sure about that. And in a very symbolic move, she also only had women and children with her, the wives and kids of the pirates in her crew. She reoffered her resignation, re-entered negotiations, and secured a safe retirement for thousands of pirates in her crew in just two days. Many of them were even offered military positions, probably because they were better at being a navy than the imperial navy was! Just like Zheng’s crew was once trained by the Vietnamese fighters in the Tay Son Rebellion, I imagine there was some educating and training happening once her former crew joined the Chinese military. 

Zheng Yi Sao was able to retain between twenty and thirty ships, which it seems like she used to create a merchant fleet. She also got her marriage to Chang Pao recognized by the Chinese government, something that technically should have been illegal because she had already legally adopted him. AND she walked away with the money. She got to keep most of it. This is a happy ending if any historical figure has ever had one. 

I want to be really clear: Never before and never again was there a large-scale pirate surrender like this! Toward the end of the Golden Age of Piracy in Europe and the Americas peaceful surrenders and pardons were offered to pirates, but those happened on a case-by-case sort of basis. This is the only instance of pardons happening, quote, “en masse through a single pirate ambassador.” They were completely free to go, no restrictions.  

But of course, Zheng Yi Sao couldn’t totally give up her life of crime. I think anyone who has ever watched any movie about any criminal who was any good at crime probably saw this coming. She is only 35 here, but she does tone it down some from here on out. 

She was still married to Chang Pao, who became active in the military. He rose to the rank of colonel before retiring. He was even awarded a peacock feather, which is sort of an equivalent to being awarded a military cross, it was a big deal. He died in 1822, so Zheng Yi Sao finished raising their son alone–because by the way, they had a son together in 1813 after they retired from piracy. His name was Chang Yulin. I don’t really know what became of him, unfortunately. 

When the First Opium War started up in the late 1830s, there are records showing that Zheng Yi Sao was advising the military on how to fight the British at sea. When that ended in the 1840s, she still wasn’t done! She opened an illegal gambling house, a notorious one, and might have even been involved in the smuggling of opium, despite helping the Chinese government fight against this smuggling. 

In 1844 or so, Zheng Yi Sao died in Macau at the age of 69, still rich and in control of her life. Piracy of course continued in the South China Sea but her success as the Pirate Queen was never surpassed. She’s remembered as the greatest pirate that ever lived. 

Surprisingly, or maybe it’s not that surprising depending on your perspective, there’s really not that much media about her. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End features a character named Madame Ching who is based on her, and a recent Doctor Who episode apparently features her, though I haven’t seen it yet. Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short story called “The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate,” which I’ll link to in the transcript and show notes. But her story was ignored by Western storytellers for over a century. Thankfully more and more people are getting to know her, so maybe we’ll get a limited series about her soon–are you listening Amazon Prime? Netflix? HBO? You have my email.

Well, that is the story of Zheng Yi Sao, our pirate queen. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Unruly Figures! If you did, please tell a friend about it. You can also let me know your thoughts by following me on Twitter and Instagram as @unrulyfigures, or joining us over on Substack. If you have a moment, please give this show a five-star review on Spotify or Apple Podcasts–it really does help other folks find this work. Thanks for listening! 

Unruly Figures
Unruly Figures
A show about history's favorite rebels. Releasing every other Tuesday.