By: C. Paixão
Zheng Yi Sao, also known as the Pirate Queen of China or Ching Shih, lived from 1775 until 1844, and was born in Xinhui, Guangdong. At the age of 26, in 1801, she married Zheng Yi, a pirate who fought for the Vietnamese Tây So’n Dynasty in many wars and later for the first Emperor of the Nguyễn Dynasty. Tracing back Zheng Yi’s family history, researchers have found that he was born into a pirate family whose roots date back to the involvement of the Ming Dynasty. Growing up in a family with strong pirate origins led him to force Zhang Bao, a boy he abducted and called his own, into piracy in 1798, at the age of 15. Therefore, naturally, when he married Zheng Yi Sao, she entered the world of piracy as well.
The Pirate Queen was born into a poor family in China and was given up by her parents to the Chinese Emperor at an early age. Although there isn’t any actual proof of it, at that time, this most likely left her only one option; working as a prostitute on a floating Tanka brothel in Guangdong for the Emperor.
One year after their marriage, in 1802, Zheng Yi’s cousin Zheng Qi, who was the leader of one of the largest pirate fleets in China, was captured and executed by Nguyễn forces, causing great grief and anger to Zheng Yi. On July 20th of that same year, Nguyễn Ánh destroyed the Tây So’n Dynasty in the city of Thăng Long. Zheng Yi quickly took over his cousin’s fleet and sailed back to the Chinese coast, gathering the pirates who belonged to the Tây So’n defense. After a long period of fighting near the Guangdong coast, Zheng Yi, with the help of his wife, managed to unite pirates into a confederation and they all signed an agreement in July 1805. The new Pirate Confederation consisted of six fleets recognised by the colour of their flags; red, black, blue, white, yellow, and purple, where the largest was commanded by Zheng Yi: the Red Flag Fleet.
In November 1807, Zheng Yi fell overboard in a gale and died and Zheng Yi Sao, his wife, took over his operations, ships and Pirate Confederation along Zhang Bao, Zheng Yi’s adoptive son, with whom she later married. Zheng Yi Sao was also familiar with the Black Flag Fleet, second largest in the confederation. After her assuming command, the confederation became significantly more active and powerful, where her ships entered in conflict with various major powers, such as East India Company, Qing China and the Portuguese Empire. During Zheng Yi Sao’s control, the fleet was composed of 400 junks and about 60,000 pirates.
After Zheng Yi’s unfortunate death, Zhang Bao assumed the leadership position of the Red Flag Fleet, where, according to a report by Wen Chengzai, a government official, “Zhang Bao obeyed Zheng Yi Sao’s orders, and consulted her on all things before acting.” The woman pirate, or Pirate Queen, became the most powerful pirate at the time, having a respectful reputation where she was well-known due to her organisation and intelligence, as well as her logical and strategic thinking. Historical sources and ancient stories mention significant events that happened while she held control of the confederation in the South China Sea from 1801 to 1810. These stories reflect her power and strength as a pirate, as she fought and won many conflicts, destroyed many fleets, killed many pirates who were deemed as threats to her and her fleet, and intervened many trades between countries which benefited her and her crew.
In 1810, Zheng Yi Sao negotiated a surrender to Qing authorities and managed to retain a substantial fleet and avoid prosecution for Zhang Bao and herself. The official surrender to Bai Ling took place on April 20, 1810, and they gave in with 17,318 pirates, 226 ships, 2,798 weapons and 1,315 cannons. This decision was made by Zheng Yi Sao as she felt that they were such in a position of power that they could negotiate to surrender without punishment or reparation imposed on them, which did happen as they were not harmed. Guangdong agreed to legitimise their power in exchange for their retirement as they were so desperate to end piracy. Moreover, Zhang Bao was appointed and awarded the rank of Lieutenant. Zheng Yi Sao was allowed to retain a private fleet of approximately 30 ships. She was also allowed to officially marry Zhang Bao, which they did, and moved to Min’an, Fujian together after they destroyed the Blue Flag Fleet. The Pirate Queen’s entire crew was pardoned and received pork, wine and money.
Throughout her life, she had 2 sons with Zheng Yi named Zheng Yingshi and Zheng Xiongshi, and 1 son with Zhang Bao, her adoptive son: Zhang Yulin. Zhang Bao died in 1822 serving as coronel, and, after living a relatively peaceful, prosperous and successful life in piracy, Zheng Yi Sao died at the age of 68 in 1844. “Zheng Yi Sao has been considered not only history’s most successful and powerful female pirate, but one of, or possibly the most, successful pirate in all of history”, according to Women’s Republic.