China’s pirate queen Zheng Yi Sao’s final success: retirement

Society & Culture

At a time when legal avenues for women were limited, working as an outlaw was almost obligatory. Zheng Yi Sao proved herself to be a pragmatic and creative leader on the high seas.

This Week in China’s History: April 1810

She was a formidable presence on the China coast, a pirate with few equals. In the spring of 1810, Zhèng Yī Sǎo 鄭一嫂 had more than 300 vessels and as many as 40,000 sailors under her direct command. In all, 70,000 pirates aboard more than 1,000 junks heeled to her command, harassing coastal villages and the Qing navy.

Zheng Yi Sao had met Qing officers in battle dozens of times, but in mid-April 1810, she was meeting not to trade cannonfire, but terms. Zheng Yi Sao was proposing to retire — and surrender her fleet to government authorities.

For a successful pirate queen whose forces outnumbered the Qing navy by perhaps 3 to 1 and had successfully fought off not only the Qing but the British and Portuguese as well, to retire without a fight defied expectations. But Zheng Yi Sao had defied expectations from the start.

She was born Shí Yáng 石陽 in 1775 in Guangdong. As a young woman, she did sex work with the pirate and merchant ships that traversed the South China Sea, leaving in 1802 on a floating brothel and marrying Zhèng Yī 鄭一, one of several pirate leaders competing for primacy in a complex naval zone. From that time forward, she was known primarily as Zheng Yi Sao: “Zheng Yi’s wife.”

Neighboring Vietnam was locked in a civil war, and the ruling Tay Son dynasty — fighting against the Qing-sponsored Nguyen dynasty — enlisted Chinese pirates in their fight. When that war ended in a Nguyen victory, many of the pirates who had fought on behalf of the Tay Son returned to Chinese waters. Zheng Yi and Zheng Yi Sao worked together to organize and lead the hundreds of ships and thousands of men suddenly at loose ends. Soon a pirate navy coalesced under Zheng Yi’s command, organized by his wife. The fleets were combined into eight different squadrons, each under a different color flag, all loyal to Zheng Yi and Zheng Yi Sao. Zheng Yi was a pirate king commanding 400 ships and 70,000 men, as powerful as any government official in the South China Sea.

The kingdom grew for several years, but faced a crisis when Zheng Yi died in a storm — or maybe from a cannonball — in 1807. Many probably expected that his wife would fade from leadership. But predicting what Zheng Yi Sao would do was a fool’s errand.

She moved swiftly to take control of the largest of the Red Flag Fleet, the largest of the pirate confederations that plied the waters around Guangdong. Crucially, she had the support of Zhāng Bǎo 张保, one the commanders of the Red Flag Fleet. Zhang had been abducted by the pirate fleet as a boy and taken as a protege. Learning the trade, tactics, and strategy of the pirates, Zhang quickly gained the confidence of Zheng Yi and Zheng Yi Sao, so much so that the pair adopted him as their legal heir, an extension of the family.

After Zheng Yi’s death, Zheng Yi Sao needed loyalty above all. Although capable and experienced, her position was vulnerable. Historian Dian Murray describes Zheng Yi Sao’s skillful and aggressive mix of diplomacy, intimidation, strategy, and accommodation to establish personal connections and consolidate her power at the head of the fleet. She took no chances when it came to the Red Flag: she took Zhang Bao, her adopted heir, as a lover; they married soon after.

She then devised and implemented an extensive and detailed law code for the fleet, demanding above all loyalty — disobeying a superior’s order could mean immediate beheading — but also a moral code. Sexual misconduct against female prisoners was made a capital offense. Pirates were permitted to take wives from among their captives, but the code enforced monogamy: sexual relations outside of marriage were also punishable by death.

Zheng Yi Sao’s code gave her fleet some aspects of a small state. Each pirate was entitled to just 20% of the loot from any raid or conquest; the remaining 80% went to a common fund, allocated across the fleet. And in time, Zheng Yi Sao began generating revenue not just from raiding and warfare, but from more mundane pursuits. By interdicting the Qing government’s salt monopoly, the pirate kingdom effectively took over the salt trade in South China, collecting taxes in return for permitting the trade.

There was little for the Qing navy, outnumbered and outclassed, to do. In just the single year of 1808, pirates destroyed nearly half — 63 out of 135 — of the navy ships assigned to protect Guangdong. The following year, pirate ships harassed American, Portuguese, and Siamese vessels attempting to trade at Qing ports, and threatened to besiege Guangzhou. A handful of major battles ended either indecisively or with pirate victories. A revolving door of provincial and regional officials struggled, or simply failed, to assert government control.

In 1809, a newly appointed governor-general, Bǎi Líng 百齡, moved more aggressively than ever against the pirates. While direct military confrontation was met with defeat — and resulted in increased pirate raids on coastal communities — by the end of 1809, Bai Ling’s campaign to lure pirates to his side through rewards and amnesties began to have some success. Several thousand pirates defected to the Qing side.

Zheng Yi Sao was in many ways at the height of her power, but the defections and the signs that foreign involvement in pirate suppression would only increase persuaded her to seek an exit. On the morning of April 8, 1810, she led a group of women and children into Bai Ling’s office and offered her surrender. It was not unconditional: Zhang Bao would keep 80 vessels under his command, and his influence in the salt trade would remain.

Negotiations continued at Macau. Although the idea of rewarding enemies of the state was difficult to stomach, Bai Ling could not ignore the opportunity to regain control over his realm. Within weeks, the Qing government had accepted Zheng Yi Sao’s surrender — though “retirement” might be the better descriptor. Zhang Bao was permitted to maintain his own fleet, and was also given a rank in the Qing navy. The former pirates under his command were granted amnesty and permitted to join the army or navy. (The amnesty and promotion for a criminal was not uncontroversial. Lín Zéxú 林则徐, who would go on to confront the British in the lead-up to the Opium War, was among those who objected to Zhang Bao’s rehabilitation.)

As the wife of an official, Zheng Yi Sao retired with a substantial stipend, and even outlived a second husband. After Zhang Bao died, in 1822, she lived in and near Guangzhou for another two decades, dying in 1844 as a new world of treaty ports on the China coast was coming into existence.

Pirates are irresistible, even if their Hollywood glamor covers up the fact that they were violent and brutal in many cases. It’s perhaps unsurprising that Zheng Yi Sao — “history’s greatest pirate queen” — has enjoyed a renaissance in popular culture, even playing a small role in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Her success as a pirate is unquestioned, but don’t let caricatures of parrots and peg legs obscure her real accomplishments. At a time when legal avenues for women were limited, working as an outlaw was almost obligatory. She showed herself to be a pragmatic and creative leader, organizing a mini-state that challenged imperial authority for decades, and secured for herself and her family wealth and prestige beyond anyone’s expectation.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.