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Zheng Yi Sao: The Most Successful Pirate in History

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The Image of a Pirate

The popular image of pirates is Robert Newton's portrayal of Long John Silver in the 1950 movie Treasure Island; all gravelly voiced “Arrrrr,” missing a leg, and a parrot on his shoulder. Zheng Yi Sao wasn't like that. Small, slim, and female she commanded a massive pirate fleet in the South China Sea in the 19th century.

Zheng Yi Sao depicted wielding her sword.

Zheng Yi Sao depicted wielding her sword.

From Sex Worker to Pirate

She was born in Guangdong, South China in 1775; her name then was Shi Yang. She was probably a Tanka; people who lived on floating junks and were considered outcasts by the dominant Han Chinese.

The males were fishermen and many of the females were sold into prostitution. This was the fate of Zheng Yi Sao who worked in the floating brothels on the South China coast.

She was shrewd and, in addition to servicing common sailors, she also attracted the attentions of powerful and wealthy men. Their unguarded pillow talk meant that Zheng Yi Sao became privy to a lot of valuable information that she was able to trade for advancement. Soon, she was the madam of a brothel and this is where, in 1801, she met Zheng Yi, a pirate operating along the South China coast.

Zheng bought Shi Yang's freedom and the two married. She changed her name to Zheng Yi Sao and gained entry to her husband's world of piracy and the fleet of ships he commanded.

China's Pirate Confederacy

The Zhengs were among several pirate groups that squabbled with each other over territory. The couple was able to negotiate peace among the pirate groups and formed a confederacy in 1804; they called it the Red Flag Fleet.

Zheng Yi died in 1807, perhaps he fell overboard in a storm, perhaps he was murdered, mystery surrounds his passing. Writing for Atlas Obscura, Urvija Banerji notes that “Following his death, she succeeded him and commanded over 1,800 pirate ships, and an estimated 80,000 men. In comparison, the famed Blackbeard commanded four ships and 300 pirates.”

Before his marriage, Zheng Yi had abducted a 15-year-old boy, Zhang Bao, and forced him into piracy. After marriage, the Zhengs adopted the young man and made him heir to their fortune.

With Zheng Yi gone, his widow and adopted son ran the Red Flag Fleet with great efficiency. The two became lovers and then husband and wife. (Unusual relationships seem to have occurred in the pirating business).

Zheng Yi Sao was not content to sit in the counting house adding up the day's take; she was on board her ships wielding a cutlass with the rest of her crews. Unlike, the superstitious sailors of the West, there was no reluctance among Chinese mariners to having women aboard.

Chinese pirate battle.

Chinese pirate battle.

Zheng Yi Sao's Code

European pirates all adopted codes of conduct, without which maintaining discipline among a bunch of unruly cutthroats would have been impossible. Zheng Yi Sao followed the example and drew up a code of conduct for the tens of thousands of pirates under her command.

  • The penalty for disobeying an order from a superior was immediate beheading.
  • Decapitation was also the punishment for any pirate that mistreated a captured woman. However, if a pirate and a captive woman engaged in consensual sex they were both executed.
  • Pirates were not allowed to go ashore without permission. If they did, their ears were slit. A second offence meant death.
  • All bounty was to be shared equally among crew members.
Chinese junk similar to the ones used by Zheng Yi Sao.

Chinese junk similar to the ones used by Zheng Yi Sao.

Pirates Were Brutal

Lest we get some romantic notions about piracy, it's important to remember that Madam Zheng oversaw a criminal enterprise that terrorized the south coast of China. Her employees robbed, murdered, and sold into slavery thousands of innocent people.

Coastal towns were charged protection money and, if they refused to pay, communities were pillaged for supplies. Foreign vessels were also required to pay for protection or be boarded, robbed of their cargoes, and sailors captured and held for ransom.

Richard Glasspoole was an officer on a British merchant ship who was captured and held by Zheng Yi Sao's pirates for four months. He later described how kidnapped Chinese sailors were given a blunt choice, become a pirate or be flogged to death.

Zheng Yi Sao's pirates had a grisly ritual when they attacked coastal communities. They cut off the heads of their victims and tied the pigtails of two together to wear around their necks as trophies.

The Pirate Queen Quits

Zheng Yi Sao's pirate fleets were able to inflict several defeats on the Chinese Imperial Navy, which caused displeasure among Qing dynasty officials. British and Portuguese warships were also harassing the pirates, making life more difficult for them.

Eventually, the Chinese government offered all the pirates amnesty just to get rid of them and their plundering of maritime commerce. In 1810, the offer to anchor her ships in harbors proved attractive to Zheng Yi Sao, as internecine conflict among the pirates was making the business less lucrative and more dangerous.

The government took possession of 226 ships, 1,315 cannons, and an assortment of weapons totally almost 2,800. More than 17,000 pirates went free and were sent on their way with money, wine, and pork. Many of these men were then enlisted into the Imperial Navy where they joined in stamping out the remaining pirates.

Zheng Yi Sao did not settle down to a quiet, law-abiding retirement; she ran a gambling house from which she operated a smuggling ring dealing in opium. Unlike most pirates, she died a peaceful death in 1844 at the age of 69.

Bonus Factoids

  • Zheng Yi Sao was not the only woman involved in pirating. In the 14th century Jeanne de Clisson, “The Lioness of Brittany,” took up piracy against the Duke of Brittany who had executed her husband. Irishwoman Anne Bonny became the lover and fellow pirate of John Rackham, known as “Calico Jack.” In 1720, Bonny and another female pirate named Mary Read plundered shipping along the American eastern seaboard.
  • In the 2007 movie Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, there is a character named Mistress Ching who is based on Zheng Yi Sao.
  • In 1995, two friends, known by the aliases of “Cap'n Slappy” and “Ol' Chumbucket,” launched the idea of “Talk Like a Pirate Day” as a joke. The silly idea caught on and Talk Like a Pirate Day is held on September 19 every year. Properly executed, pirate talk has to be a reasonable an impersonation of Robert Newton's Long John Silver.

Pirate Talk

Sources

The Chinese Female Pirate Who Commanded 80,000 Outlaws.” Urvija Banerji, Atlas Obscura, June 15, 2022.

Zheng Yi Sao: The Most Successful Pirate in History.” Emma Nagouse, BBC, undated.

Zheng Yi Sao – Pirate Queen of the Qing Dynasty.” Sarah Pusteblume, historyheroines.com, April 4, 2018.

Zheng Yi Sao.” Mark Cartwright, World History Encyclopedia, November 15, 2021.

The Greatest Pirate of all Time Was a Widow from China.” Supreeta Balasubramanian, thetempest.co, September 19, 2021.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor