It’s often said that behind every great man is a great woman, but what happens when the woman is cunning, lethal and blood thirsty? Well, the great man disappears and the greater woman reigns supreme.
Way back in January last year, I wrote about the pirate king Eli Bogg. In the interest of gender equality, it’s only fair to mention that the Pearl River Delta also had a pirate queen: Zheng Yi Sao (Cantonese: Jehng Yāt Sóu). She was the bad ass queen of the South China Sea. If anything, she would have seen gender equality as a step down.
Zheng Yi Sao was one of the most successful pirates in history, yet she was also illiterate and a former prostitute. At the height of her power in the early 19th century, she commanded a fleet of 1,200 ships and nearly 100,000 pirates. She was an empire unto herself—fighting wars with the British, Portuguese and the Qing.
Her career in piracy began in 1801. At the time, she worked aboard one of Guangzhou’s floating brothels before having the good sense to marry one of her clients, the pirate Cheng Yi, who operated as a privateer under the loose control of the Vietnamese court. The newlyweds made a good team. The piracy game was changing and there were new opportunities to exploit.
Rape of female captives was a capital offense and even consensual sex with a prisoner would lead to both the pirate and his booty being heaved overboard, tied to weights. If a member of Zheng Yi Sao’s fleet wanted to shiver timbers with a captive, he had to marry the captive first.
A year after their marriage, their patrons at court in Hanoi gave way to a new regime, which was less interested in supporting piracy. Zheng Yi and Zheng Yi Sao simply sailed their fleet north and moved operations to Southern China. There, they began consolidating their power by bringing together scattered bands of pirates and freebooters into a loose a confederation. Zheng Yi was the visionary, unifying figure who got everybody’s attention. It was Zheng Yi Sao who made sure everyone stayed in line.
Zheng Yi Sao’s methods of enforcing loyalty presaged another notorious and influential woman of the 19th century, the Empress Dowager Cixi. Like Cixi, Zheng Yi Sao was an excellent judge of people’s hopes and fears. She was always on watch for potential treachery and was a master at playing potential rivals against each other.
She was also ruthless in enforcing a code of laws for all pirates in the fleet. Insubordination was punished with immediate decapitation. Deserters were mutilated: their ears, hands or feet severed. Rape of female captives was a capital offense and even consensual sex with a prisoner would lead to both the pirate and his booty being heaved overboard, tied to weights. If a member of Zheng Yi Sao’s fleet wanted to shiver timbers with a captive, he had to marry the captive first.
But it was her skillful manipulation of the men in her life which made her the undisputed Pirate Queen of South China.
She started with her husband, Zheng Yi. According to legend, Zheng Yi was in love with a young man named Zhang Baozai. Zheng Yi Sao exploited her husband’s crush by encouraging him to adopt the boy and make him his successor as captain of the entire fleet.
As a poor outsider and son of a fisherman, Zhang Baozai was entirely dependent on Zheng Yi, and Zheng Yi’s wife, for his position. His loyalty to the couple was absolute, even more so after first Zheng Yi and then Zheng Yi Sao took the young man into their bed.
It turned out that young Zhang Baozai’s dedication was deeper to the wife than the husband. Once Zhang Baozai’s position as the heir-apparent was secure, Zheng Yi died in a tragic “accident,” when he fell overboard from his ship and drowned. With Zheng Yi out of the way, Zheng Yi Sao bolstered her control over the fleet by marrying her husband’s heir, Zhang Baozai.
Zhang Baozai would have his own career in piracy. His name loosely translates as “Zhang Bao the Kid,” but he is better known in history by the Cantonese pronunciation: Cheung Po Tsai. There are even several landmarks in Hong Kong and Guangdong that bear this name. Fans of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise might also recognize him as the real-life figure behind Chow Yun-Fat’s character, Sao Feng. But it was Zheng Yi Sao who emerged as the real force. She had a temple built aboard her flagship to ensure that all of her commanders would protect the vessel and honor its captain.
For the next three years, Zheng Yi Sao ravaged the Chinese coast and resisted all attempts by the government to sink her fleet. In one year, she destroyed 63 of the 135 vessels in the Guangdong coastal defense fleet and threatened to sack Guangzhou.
Unable to stop her, her enemies decided to simply bow to her demands. She negotiated settlements with the British East India Company, the Qing government and anyone else interested in making an offer: paid retirement for Zheng Yi Sao and her entire crew.
Still, a pirate never truly retires, they just move ashore. Zheng Yi Sao moved on by operating as a gangster in Guangdong: running gambling parlors, opium dens, and brothels until her death in 1844.