Born as Shi Yang in 1775 to humble origins, she married a pirate named Zheng Yi at age 26 in 1801. She was named Zheng Yi Sao (“wife of Zheng Yi”) by the people of Guangdong. After the death of her husband in 1807, she took control of his pirate confederation with the support of Zheng Yi’s adopted son Zhang Bao, with whom she entered into a relationship and later married. As the unofficial commander of the Guangdong Pirate Confederation, her fleet was composed of 400 junks and between 40,000 and 60,000 pirates in 1805. Her ships entered into conflict with several major powers, such as the East India Company, the Portuguese Empire, and Qing China.
In 1810, Zheng Yi Sao negotiated a surrender to the Qing authorities that allowed her and Zhang Bao to retain a substantial fleet and avoid prosecution. At the time of her surrender, she personally commanded 24 ships and over 1,400 pirates. She died in 1844 at the age of about 68, having lived a relatively peaceful and prosperous life since the end of her career in piracy. Zheng Yi Sao has been described as not only history’s most successful female pirate, but one of the most successful pirates in history.
Legends of the Sea Devils: Zheng Yi Sao on Doctor Who
Doctor Who’s Legend of the Sea Devils only skimmed the surface of the life of Madame Ching. So dive deeper into Zheng Yi Sao’s real history.
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National Geographic Podcast: Queens of the High Sea
Meet pirate queen Zheng Yi Sao, who tormented the South China Sea with her fleet of 70,000 raiders in the early 19th century.
You’re Dead to Me Podcast: Zheng Yi Sao
Listen to this episode from You’re Dead to Me on Spotify. Greg Jenner, comedian Ria Lina and Prof Ronald C Po investigate one of the most successful pirates to have ever lived, Zheng Yi Sao. During the 18th century Qing dynasty, she led the most feared army of pirates the world had ever seen – all without a parrot on her shoulder.
Pirate Codes: Enforced by Zheng Yi Sao
- Anyone caught giving commands on their own or disobeying a command from a superior is to be immediately decapitated.
- Pilfering from common treasury or public fund, and stealing from villagers who supplied the pirates were capital offences.
- No pirate could retain any good before inspection.
- Goods had to be registered and then distributed by the fleet leader.
- 20% of the booty was to be returned to the original captor and the remainder was placed in a joint treasury or storehouse.
- Currency was to be handed over to the squadron leader, part was turned over to the fleet, and some back to the captor.
The Pirate Queen of the China Sea
From Canton across the South China sea to the edge of the Philippines the Red Flags of Pirate Junks waved in the fragrant breeze. These were the ships of the greatest pirate fleet ever to sail the sea, the only true pirate confederation to actually exist and it was all headed up by one very …