The life story of Shih Yang, known to history by her married name Cheng I Sao (the wife of Cheng I) would inspire countless novels and semi-fictionalized accounts of a Chinese pirate queen or “Dragon Lady” of the South China Sea. Indeed, her life was so sensational, and pirates so marginalized, that authors, even historians, have found it difficult to parse fact from fiction. But have no fear, we’re not in the business of peddling fiction and we’re not starting now. We’ve done the work. So, sit back, relax, and hear about the life of Cheng I Sao, the woman commander of the Pirate Confederacy in the South China Sea.

We’re producing this series as a collaboration with historian Hallie Rubenhold’s new podcast Bad Women: The Ripper Retold. Rubenhold’s book The Five has earned critical acclaim: this social history about the victims of Jack the Ripper is the 2019 winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-fiction and was shortlisted for the 2020 Wolfson History Prize.

Transcript for Dragon Lady of the South China Sea: Cheng I Sao, Woman Commander of China’s Pirate Confederacy

Written, researched, produced, and recorded by Marissa Rhodes, PhD

Produced and recorded by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Marissa: No one knows what her last day was like on that floating brothel, which the Chinese euphemistically called a “flower boat.” No one even knows for sure what they called her. Some scholars believe her name prior to marriage was Shih Yang and that she had an alias or two. Shih Yang is as good a name as any so that’s what we’ll call her for now. Let’s go back two centuries to Imperial China. The year was 1801 and a 26-year-old sex worker named Shih Yang was kissing her old life goodbye. It is unclear how long she spent selling sex on what was almost certainly a cramped, stinking brothel ship that floated from port to port on the South China Sea. This flower boat operation was a lower-class affair. She was poorly educated as most women were in imperial China; she couldn’t read or write, and if stories about 18th-century brothels are true, she had likely experienced poverty and abuse.

Sarah: She wouldn’t have known, at the time, what her new life would be like. But for Shih Yang, great things were in store. Within a few years, she would come to command the largest pirate confederation in history, consisting of six fearsome fleets, no fewer than 400 junks, and as many as 70,000 pirates doing her bidding. Her organization became such a menacing threat to imperial China that the Qing were eventually forced to legitimize their power in a desperate attempt to end their tenure in the South China Sea.

Marissa: The life story of Shih Yang, known to history by her married name Cheng I Sao (the wife of Cheng I) would inspire countless novels and semi-fictionalized accounts of a Chinese pirate queen or “Dragon Lady” of the South China Sea. Indeed, her life was so sensational, and pirates so marginalized, that authors, even historians, have found it difficult to parse fact from fiction. But have no fear, we’re not in the business of peddling fiction and we’re not starting now. We’ve done the work. So sit back, relax, and hear about the life of Cheng I Sao, the woman commander of the Pirate Confederacy in the South China Sea.

I’m Marissa

And I’m Sarah

Marissa: And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.


Marissa: Shih Yang, as she was most likely known before her first marriage, was born  in 1775, possibly in a village near Xinhui, a city near the coast of the South China Sea. Alternatively, she may have belonged to the Tanka people, also called “boat people” or “sea gypsies.” The Tanka were an ethnic group who, during the Ming Dynasty, were prohibited from settling on land. As a result, they tended to live on junks that trolled the China coasts. If Shih Yang was a Tanka, she would have been born on a cramped boat off the coast of Guangdong province. The boat would have been home to her nuclear family only. Due to practical reasons, the Tanka did without extended lineages, ancestral property, or gentry. Thus, they were pariahs within larger Chinese society. Their lives were characterized by instability, mobility, and situational poverty. The details of Shih Yang’s childhood and adolescence are a mystery to us. But they were almost certainly filled with hardship that is unimaginable to us. Port life in the late-eighteenth-century South China Sea was rough. How so? Let us set the scene.

Sarah: Our story finds us smack dab in the middle of the last imperial dynasty in China- The Qing. The Qing were foreign rulers (they were ethnically Manchu rather than Han Chinese) and they were keenly aware of the limitations of foreign authorities over such a massive empire. So the Qing had developed a very hands-off style of rule since they’d taken power in 1644. The Qing also directed their resources toward land-oriented defense. As a result, troops from the Imperial army were scattered ineffectively around the coasts. This had some unfortunate consequences for coastal areas and the people who lived in them. Pirates had always been active in the seas surrounding China’s enormous land mass. Coastal villages and towns had been erecting barriers to pirate raids for centuries but their establishment and repair relied on the generosity of the gentry since the emperor did not contribute to these efforts.

Marissa: In addition to zero aid in terms of infrastructure, the Qing also neglected the coasts in terms of personnel. Imperial ships were hardly ever in good repair and imperial fleets only patrolled the seas twice per year at regular intervals. Pirates and other criminals could easily evade their efforts.  In his study of coastal forts in eighteenth-century Qing China, Historian Robert J. Antony found that almost half of all coastal posts were manned by only two to five soldiers. About 75% of all military posts were manned by 10 or fewer troops. These poorly staffed posts were no match for the waves of pirates who raided coastal regions looking for provisions and valuables. The villages that fared the best against the pirate scourge were those who had the support of wealthy gentry who could finance the erection of physical barriers and the operations of local militias. Pirates ran roughshod over everyone else.

Sarah: And these weren’t just the disorganized, independent buccaneers you see in most fictionalized movies about pirates. These were well-organized “privateers” sponsored by the Tay-son Dynasty in Vietnam. China’s border with Vietnam is about 200 miles from Guangdong and the Vietnamese land mass hems in the South China Sea to the Northwest. Therefore, the story of the South China Sea has always been both a Chinese and Vietnamese story. Indeed, the rise in piracy in the South China Sea in the second half of the eighteenth century was inextricably linked to Sino-Vietnamese relations.

“Pirates: An Illustrated History of Privateers, Buccaneers & Pirates from the Sixteenth Century to the Present”

During the entire 18th century, China was facing worsening demographic pressures. Its population doubled from 150 million to 300 million. The Chinese hinterlands began to fill up with this growing population and, for most of China, this population boom translated into economic stimulation. But for Guangdong province, the home of little Shih Yang, this population boom was disastrous. The population of Guangdong increased more than those of the other provinces AND a smaller percentage of the province was cultivatable land compared to the rest of China.

These circumstances ignited fierce competition for resources in the province, driving its economic and political center out to the sea. This increase in sea trade attracted foreign ships which, in turn, stimulated even more economic activity within the South China Sea. The land-bound Chinese looked to the sea for economic opportunities.

Marissa: The unofficial headquarters of South China Sea piracy was the Sino-Vietnamese border town of Chiang-p’ing. Chinese pirates almost always had Vietnamese connections. Sino-Vietnamese trade (over land AND sea) was heavily regulated and trade restrictions failed to evolve as South China Sea trade picked up. China’s markets most wanted Vietnamese rice to feed their growing population and Vietnam’s markets most wanted Chinese iron, a resource of which they had very little. However, both commodities were contraband according to the inflexible Sino-Vietnamese trade regulations. Obviously this state of affairs was untenable so back channels quickly developed into a complex smuggling operation. Smugglers used pirates to build their network. With so few opportunities on land and official avenues of trade impeded by regulations, piracy flourished in the South China Sea in the second half of the eighteenth century. In a place and time where poverty and starvation were commonplace, piracy was a survival strategy, one that Shih Yang would eventually take advantage of.

Sarah: As historian Dian Murray puts it: “Within the water world struggling fishermen, together with down-and-outers, desperadoes, and malcontents, formed a pool of potential pirates from which at any moment an actual gang might emerge.” So even though pirates were numerous in the South China Sea, that does not mean they were organized. This all changed after 1790 due to the Tay-Son Rebellion in Vietnam. This rolling rebellion of sorts began around 1772, several years before Shih Yang’s birth. By 1778, when Shih Yang was a toddler running around somewhere on (or just off) the coasts of Guangdong, the Tay-Son brothers had seized control of southern Vietnam and one declared himself Emperor of Vietnam. The Qing aligned themselves with the old order in Vietnam, while Chinese dissidents, namely pirates and other outlaws, aligned themselves with the Tay-Son rebels.

Marissa: The Tay-Son made good use of their pirate allies, shaping them over time into ordered privateer fleets under the command of a Chinese fisherman-turned-commander, Ch’en T’ien-pao.Throughout the 1790s, the pirates participated in every one of the Tay-son’s naval engagements. One particular Chinese pirate rose up the ranks to become one of the Tay-son’s best pirate leaders, Cheng Ch’i (We’ll get back to him soon). Under the aegis of the Tay-Son, Chinese pirates became accustomed to a command structure. They became a lean, mean, raiding machine, funneling a percentage of their booty to the Tay-son. Indeed, the Chinese pirates became so crucial to the Tay-son cause that they permitted the conferral of military orders on their Chinese privateers.

Sarah: With the benefit of this state-backing and their new, more effective organizational structure, piracy flourished around the South China Sea in a way it never had before. The pirates recruited disaffected Chinese into their ranks and executed massive raiding operations along the coasts of Guangdong and Fukien provinces. The traditional, localized methods of combating pirate raids were less effective against these well-organized, more numerous bands of pirates. Even those who were not well-organized were incredibly dangerous.

Dian Murray offers the following narrative as a typical month in the life of a pirate in the 1790s South China Seas (this is paraphrased and simplified somewhat from Murray’s text):

Marissa: On September 15, 1795, Ch’en A-yang visited his cousin Ch’en A-ch’ang in Chiang-p’ing (that Sino-Vietnamese border town we mentioned earlier) and when he arrived, Ch’en A-ch’ang told his cousin about a recent adventure he’d had acting as a member of a pirate gang. He said he’d helped them raid a few junks at sea and enjoyed a portion of the booty. Ch’en A-ch’ang invited Ch’en A-yang to join him in the pirate gang. A-yang agreed and joined A-ch’ang and eight other men on the gang leader’s boat. After a few more days of recruiting more members, the gang set sail and in the deep waters of the South China Sea, the gang attacked the junk of a man named T’a. The gang pressured T’a to join them in their adventures but he refused so they imprisoned him and forced him to bail water. That same day they raided another junk imprisoning its captain, a man named Hsia. Hsia also refused to join the gang so he was imprisoned and forced to boil rice for the crew.

A Chinese junk depicted in Travels in China: containing descriptions, observations, and comparisons, made and collected in the course of a short residence at the Imperial palace of Yuen-Min-Yuen, and on a subsequent journey through the country from Pekin to Canton, published in 1804

On September 20, the gang took another junk owned by a man named Li. A-ch’ang brutally raped the man. That same day, the gang raided yet another junk and imprisoned its owner, forcing him to boil tea for the crew. A few days later, the gang raided another junk but this time, they were able to convince the junk’s owner to join them. After this trip, they headed back home to Chiang p’ing. On October 7 and 8 they recruited 5 more pirates to their ranks and two more junks to their tiny fleet.

Sarah: On October 10th, they set sail again for a Vietnamese tour, capturing a rice boat in Hanoi harbor, seizing its contents and raping its proprietress. Five days later, they seized another cargo of rice. On October 19, they stole a cargo of pepper and imprisoned the junk’s owner. By November 10, they had returned to the waters of China where they raided a moored boat that housed pigs and ducks, seizing all of the livestock. Five days after that, the gang’s luck turned. A storm blew them into Mu’lan habor where their junk crashed on the rocks and they were arrested by authorities. As you can see, these roving bands of pirates could materialize and dematerialize quite quickly. They recruited volunteers, coerced “volunteers,” and made use of forced labor. Still, there was a hierarchical structure that was scaleable, as we’ll see soon when Shih Y’ang returns to the story.

Marissa: The piracy problem became so bad around 1800 that provincial officials had to become involved. The Governor-General of Guangdong, Bai Ling, attempted to relieve the desperate situation by hiring fishermen, sailors, and other ruffians to fight pirates on the province’s behalf. Later they’d have to restore an old system of social order that obligated the gentry to invest in provincial infrastructure and personnel. So whether Shih Yang lived in a Tanka junk or on land in a coastal village, she would have almost certainly experienced or witnessed violent pirate raids that enriched the pirates at the expense of her own community. Some Chinese, maybe even most Chinese, might have grown to loathe the pirates of the South China Sea. After all, their bellies may have been empty because of the rice they stole, or their families impoverished because of the goods or money they stole, or even their wives and daughters traumatized by the sexual violence they endured. And let’s not forget that this was a very patriarchal society so many Chinese men would have bitterly resented pirates if they’d deflowered their daughters who were their most precious resource.

Sarah: Even though all of these things may have happened to Shih Yang during her childhood and adolescence she, apparently, did not resent pirates or piracy, at least not by 1801. Rather than resent pirates for their violence and thievery, Shih Yang must have seen something in them that ignited something within her. Perhaps they appealed to some innate sense of individualism within her. Or perhaps she, very pragmatically, acknowledged that their stars were on the rise. It’s unclear. If Shih Yang was a Tanka, then she and her immediate family may have had ties to piracy all their lives. Much like casual prostitution helped women among the working poor make ends meet, casual piracy allowed some Tanka families to stave off poverty. Whatever the case, by 1801, Shih Yang was either a sex worker or possibly a sex-worker-turned-procuress on a flower boat off the coast of Guangdong province. Sometime that year, Shih Yang arranged to marry Cheng I (Zhang Yi using the pinyin system), a pirate commander from a long line of pirates in the family Cheng.

Flower Boats, Canton China [c1871] Emil Rusfeldt [RESTORED]

Marissa: The first Cheng to take up the mantle of piracy was Cheng Chien, a farmer’s son from Fukien province. He did so in 1641. A few years later, the Qing overthrew the Ming and Cheng Chien allied himself with the Ming Loyalist Movement. After two decades in the game, Cheng Chien became a semi-retired pirate, living on the Guangdong coast who supported himself with fishing and woodcutting. Though his days of banditry were over, Cheng Chien did not forsake his spirit of opportunism. He demanded fees of passage from merchant junks that entered the bay and, apparently, had the muscle to enforce the order.

Cheng Chien’s descendants went into the family business, joining pirate gangs along the coast of Guangdong. By the 1720s, two of Chien’s grandsons, Lien-fu and Lien-ch’ang had become pirate leaders. Lien-ch’ang even established a secret headquarters at the eastern end of Hong Kong which were disguised as a Sea Goddess temple. Lien-fu set up his home base 15 miles west of Hong Kong. Lien-fu sired seven sons, thereby ensuring his family’s dominance over Guangdong piracy for decades to come.

Sarah: The last of Lien-fu’s sons, Cheng Yao-huang (better known by his nickname of Cheng Ch’i – Cheng Seven), was the very pirate leader who rose up the ranks under the sponsorship of the Tay-Son. From 1788 to 1801, Cheng Ch’i both served his Tay-son masters AND built his own pirate empire. He, and by extension, the Tay-son, suffered a humiliating defeat in 1801 at Qui Nhon. Cheng Ch’i fled back to Guangdong and took up the petty piracy of his youth until in 1802, he was summoned by the Tay-son court to return to Vietnam. The Tay-son wanted him to (1) recover their lost Vietnamese territory and (2) defend their stronghold of Hanoi. He sailed with a fleet of 200 junks but lost both battles. From there, Cheng Ch’i fled to Chiang p’ing (that Sino-Vietnamese border town) where he was killed in an attack there.

After Cheng Ch’i’s death, his cousin, Cheng I resumed leadership of their pirate empire. Cheng I was the oldest of seven sons born to a Guangdong temple-builder. He was five years younger than Cheng Ch’i but his career had a similar trajectory. Like Cheng Ch’i, Cheng I also fought for the Tay-son  in Vietnam and returned to China in 1801. It was upon this return to Guangdong that Cheng I married the heroine of our story, Shih Yang. After their marriage, Shih Yang became known only as Cheng I Sao (Cheng I’s wife) so we’ll call her that from now on.

Marissa: By all accounts, Cheng I and Cheng I Sao were a formidable pair. It’s unclear was Cheng I Sao’s role was in their relationship or in the pirate empire her husband had inherited in these early years. At the VERY LEAST (being extremely conservative about her involvement) she was a keen observer and took very good notes during her marriage to Cheng I. What’s more likely is that she was an active participant in Cheng I’s command. During their tenure, the Tay-son were officially defeated, an event that could have thrown the entire operation into disarray. But the Chengs skillfully filled that power vacuum and strengthened their pirate empire with the help of Wu-shih Erh. The Chengs and Wu, along with a few other associates, would come to form the South China Sea’s first Pirate Confederation.

Sarah: Wu had also fought for the Tay-son at Hanoi, having allied himself with Cheng Ch’i during those years. After Cheng Ch’i’s death, Wu maintained ties with the family, especially Cheng I. In addition to his alliance with Cheng I, Wu also commanded a fleet along the coast of eastern Guangdong, near Fukien province. Cheng I and his wife learned a lot from Wu’s organization which was so large that it required written records, trained accountants, and political strategists. He had trusted supervisors who managed his silver, rice, and gunpowder allocations, and one that managed his salt junks. Wu’s right hand man was Huang Ho, a highly educated, disgraced ex-civil servant. Huang was Wu’s counselor, strategists, and spy. He kept Wu’s blackmail book and published posters composed to terrify villagers into giving in to Wu’s demands. Wu netted several thousand silver taels per year and kept the villagers’ resentments at bay by paying fair prices for their goods for sale. As you can see, Wu resembled less a pirate and more a modern mafioso making his money through racketeering, large scale heists, and blackmail, rather than petty piracy. Wu commanded the Blue Flag Fleet.

Marissa: Several other pirate fleets were drawn into Cheng I’s organization. The leaders of the Yellow Flag fleet and the White flag fleet met Cheng I during the rebellion in Vietnam. The commander of the Green Flag fleet was also a colleague of Cheng I but it’s unclear if he also fought in Vietnam. The leader of the Black Flag fleet, known as Kuo P’o-tai, was the son of a Tanka family. Kuo had been kidnapped by Cheng I as a teenager and subsequently pressed into piracy. Kuo worked his way up the ranks and joined Cheng I in his work for the Tay-son. Eventually, he was given his own fleet. Kuo was the only pirate leader who was literate, filling his cabin with books. At its height, the Black Fleet had more than 100 junks and 10,000 men sailing under its flag.

Sarah: As the confederation’s “principle founder,” Cheng I and his wife commanded the Red Flag Fleet. The Red Flag Fleet was the confederation’s largest fleet and whoever commanded it, commanded the confederacy as a whole. At the start, the Red Flag Fleet consisted of 200 junks and 40,000 men. But by 1804 they commanded 400 junks and 70,000 men, and by 1807, more than 600 junks. Cheng I strengthened his position at the head of the confederacy by placing his family members as squadron leaders in the fleets of his lesser commanders. When he ran out of male family members to install in important places, he married his female relatives to men among the other fleets. It is unclear how Cheng I and Cheng I Sao divided their labors. But soon it will be clear that she knew how to run the whole operation on her own. So most scholars believe she was pretty involved, perhaps even sharing equally in Cheng I’s authority.

Marissa: Together, the Chengs built not only an organization, but a family of sorts. Dian Murray describes it beautifully: “in the absence of real family ties, Cheng I and his colleagues… established fictive kinship relations by adopting younger pirates or by presenting female captives to them as brides… Through confederation, the pirates were able to overcome their personal rivalries and cooperate on a scale that had previously been impossible…” Such was the case with another major player in this story, Chang Pao. Chang Pao had also been kidnapped by Cheng I as a teenager. After a brief homosexual liaison with Cheng I, Chang Pao became his adopted son and quickly rose through the ranks during their fighting in Vietnam. The Tay-Son called Chang Pao the “Great Generalissimo.”

Sarah: Between 1801 and 1807, with his lesser commanders, his wife, and his adopted sons by his sides, Cheng I consolidated the confederacy’s dominance in the South China Sea. Murray writes, “the small petty gangs that had once stood at the forefront of pirate organization were now increasingly being superseded. Most newcomers, instead of forming gangs of their own, affiliated with confederation units. Many were in fact actively recruited by confederation members.”  This dominance coincides with the desperate pirate suppression efforts we mentioned earlier in the episode, imposed by Guandong’s Governor-General Bai Ling and others.

Marissa: Cheng-I was not, however, destined to live a long life. On November 16, 1807, Cheng I died at the age of 42 during a voyage in Vietnam. Some accounts claim he fell overboard in a storm and drowned. Others assert that he was struck by a cannonball. Nonetheless, the best evidence we have that Cheng I Sao was heavily involved in the running of the confederation BEFORE Cheng I’s death is this: not ONE commander of any of the lesser fleets, many of them highly ambitious men, contested Cheng I Sao’s assumption of command after her husband’s death. This would have been highly unusual in the misogynist society of pirates and, frankly, the even more patriarchal society of China more generally.

Sarah: Chinese pirates, unlike their Caribbean counterparts, tended to live with their entire families- women and children- on their junks. Wives and daughters often took active roles in the family business, though there are few other instances of Chinese women taking command. Cheng I Sao’s case is unusual. Scholars argue that in order to overcome the strictures of her gender, Cheng I Sao must have possessed incredible political acumen. For example, she had the political skill and knowledge to navigate her husband’s death with mastery. She secured the support of Cheng I’s closest family members and then worked on indebting all of the other fleet commanders to hers so that they owed her their loyalty. Cheng I Sao was keenly aware that a lone, woman commander would be vulnerable to a coup. So, she recruited one of Cheng I’s adopted sons, Chang Pao, to be her lieutenant, managing the Red Flag Fleet .

Marissa: Chang Pao was a good choice. He had earned the rank and file’s respect and love but, at the same time, his loyalty to Cheng I Sao was unshakeable. To secure his support, she initiated a sexual relationship with Chang Pao mere weeks after her husband’s death. They later legitimized their union through marriage. Chang Pao was important, which we’ll get to soon, but Cheng I Sao was the incontrovertible boss of the Red Flag Fleet specifically and the Pirate Confederacy as a whole. She sought to impose even more order and to, in some ways, alter the culture of the confederation. While the hierarchical relationship between each squadron and fleet had been implicit during Cheng I’s tenure, his wife was the first to structure these hierarchies with a code of conduct.

Sarah: For example, the pirates’ booty was not their own. Upon obtaining booty, confederacy pirates were mandated to report their plunder for inspection. Pirates were permitted to keep 20% of their booty and the remainder went to a joint storehouse. When they obtained currency, confederacy pirates handed it over to the squadron leader who conveyed it to the Fleet Commander. A small amount was kicked back to the original bandit while a large portion of it was stored in a joint treasury and reserved for purchasing supplies and supplementing other vessels who failed in their missions. Cheng I Sao realized that pooling their resources minimized risk so that a few failed missions would not break the bank.

Marissa: Cheng I Sao’s code was unforgiving. The penalty for pilfering shared resources was death. If pirates were caught issuing orders outside the chain of command or disobeying the orders given them by a superior, they were immediately decapitated. In practice, pilferers from the general fund were sometimes given second chances but only if their crime was minor. If a pirate withheld a small amount of booty from inspection, for example, some of their booty was withheld and they were whipped viciously. If there was even a whiff of additional funny business, the offender faced certain death. Deserters or pirates who took leave without permission had their ears cut off and were paraded through his squadron to be humiliated. Pirates who raped female captives were put to death.

Sarah: Under Cheng I Sao’s rule, women captives were supposed to be released in due time. In practice, the beautiful women were taken as wives or concubines, the ugly ones were released, and the rest were ransomed. Pirates were permitted to take any woman as a wife but once he did, monogamy was the law. Fornication, even among two consenting adults, was punished severely; the male was beheaded and the female was thrown into the Sea with weights around her ankles. Other common punishments included flogging, irons on the limbs, or quartering. Some scholars argue that this law code was actually one of Chang Pao’s invention but all seem to agree that whoever invented the code, Cheng I Sao was the enforcer. She was the ultimate authority. Murray writes, “When she spoke, the pirates obeyed.”

Marissa: But, acutely aware of the dangers of imposing a legalist society on her organization, Cheng I Sao used her new husband Chang Pao as a pressure valve of sorts. He kept her strict rules from becoming too much. Chang Pao was universally loved; he dressed flashily (in purple robes and a black turban), exhibited excellent manners, and practiced neither the cruelty nor senseless violence that was so common among pirates and their leaders. Chang Pao appears to have preferred to be loved rather than feared. Chang Pao was also a spiritual man who provided for the pirates’ religious needs. He built a temple on their largest ship, visited temples on land, and rarely raided temples or harassed priests (how good of him!)

A photograph of junks in Canton c. 1880. It is estimated that Ching Shih commanded around 1,800 of these pirate ships at the peak of her power. (Photo: Lai Afong/Public Domain)

Between 1807 and 1809, Cheng I Sao and Chang Pao grew the Pirate Confederacy with business-like shrewdness. For example, in Guangdong, salt was big business. There were 22 salterns scattered along the coast. Cheng I Sao essentially co-opted the imperial salt business, capturing the salt junks and forcing the workers to direct their salt work to the pirates’ ends. Over time, salt junk owners realized it was easier to just pay Cheng I Sao a cut of their profits to pay for safe passage. Cheng I Sao developed this practice to the point where they were extracting 50 Spanish dollars for every 100 pao of salt (100 pao = about 55 pounds of salt) that left the coast of Guangdong.

Sarah: Cheng I Sao and Chang Pao expanded this racket to other commodities as well. Soon, all junks were shelling out somewhere between 50 and 500 Spanish dollars per trip to ensure safe passage. The pirates’ authority even spread to land. They were able to extort money and rice from villagers living in the Pearl River Delta in order to guarantee their protection from confederacy pirate raids. Cheng I Sao and Chang Pao established aquatic headquarters throughout the South China Sea as well as financial offices dotting the coasts where financial officers could collect their fees. They sent agents to Macao to both sell safe passage documents to the fishermen and shippers there, AND to procure their steady supply of weapons and ammunition.

Even more impressive, Cheng I Sao developed intelligence channels on land, making use of each coastal city’s underworld. Governor-General Liang-kuang exclaimed, “On land the traitors exchange news with the pirates and arrest has no effect!” Cheng I Sao installed secret pirate agents into the system of civil servants in Guangdong. While Cheng I Sao and Chang Pao were definitely exploiting Chinese villagers on land, they were careful not to alienate them as some pirates had. They realized that they needed some of the land population on their side. Who else would sell them their much-needed victuals like rice, gunpowder, and tung oil? Or fence their stolen goods?

Marissa: This copacetic arrangement with the inland underworld allowed Cheng I Sao to arm her fleets robustly. Even under Cheng I, the confederacy had been well-armed. Before marrying his adoptive father’s widow, Chang Pao commanded a squadron of 36 junks, almost 1500 men, 200 cannon (yes that’s more than 5 cannons per junk), and 1300 fouling pieces, hooks, sickles, knives, and shields. But by 1808, under Cheng I Sao and Chang Pao, the pirates so controlled the coast that they were able to mount full scale assaults on land. In parties of 300, they targeted imperial forts and garrisons(those poorly manned ones we mentioned earlier), overpowered the troops and raid the arsenal.

Throughout 1808, Cheng I Sao’s pirates demonstrated their economic dominance and military might. When a military commander from Chekiang province sailed into the Guangdong on military orders, the pirates murdered him as a show of force. For the rest of the year they attacked the imperial navy’s forces, destroying all of the defense vessels protecting Guangdong and 63 of Guangdong’s 135 imperial vessels.

Sarah: The confederacy’s activities reached fever pitch in August 1809. The pirates moved into Guangdong’s interior and posted notices of attack around the city of Guangzhou. In September, they launched a multi-pronged frenzy of activity and, in the space of one ONE DAY, they stole five American schooners, captured the brig of the governor of Timor, and blockaded the river to prevent the passage of  a tribute mission from Siam (Thailand). It was utter chaos for Guangdong officials and they were in a panic.

These events, remembered in history as the Crisis of 1809, forced Guangdong officials to seek aid from the Westerners who they had proudly turned away several times over the prior decade. The Chinese government regarded the Europeans as “barbarians” and it wounded their pride immensely to have to turn to them. They arranged to hire the British ship Mercury with 20 cannon and 50 American volunteers. They also agreed to lease 6 Portuguese men of war to sail with their navy for 6 months. Cheng I Sao’s pirates continued to do their damage. They captured Western vessels and men (the stories of whom are some of the only documents we have about the Pirate Confederacy) and brought the opium and tin trades to a stand still.

Marissa: But by early 1810, the pirates began to realize that they were in such a position of power that they could negotiate to surrender to the Guangdong government without punishment or reparations being imposed on them. Guangdong was so desperate to end the scourge or Cheng I Sao’s pirates that they were ready to legitimize their power in exchange for their retirement, letting them keep their ill-gotten gains without question.

On February 21, 1810, the Red Flag fleet anchored in the Pearl River and met Guangdong officials to negotiate their surrender. These initial negotiations did not go well. The Governor-General told Cheng I Sao and Chang Pao they’d need to surrender their vessels and settle on land. A skilled negotiator, Cheng I Sao insisted that they be allowed to keep 80 junks and 5,000 pirates under their command. Talks broke down and Cheng I Sao retreated back to the sea. She and her commanders did not necessarily see eye to eye about how this surrender should go. Nonetheless, the continued with her negotiation. She knew they had the upper hand so held firm, even elaborating on her proposal, adding 40 salt junks to Chang Pao’s post-surrender personal fleet. With nothing on their side with which to bargain, Guangdong officials gave in to Cheng I Sao’s demands and negotiated their surrender on her terms. The agreement was made official in April 1810.

Sarah: Arguably, Cheng I Sao’s most important feat during this negotiation was her success in securing a place for Chang Pao in the imperial military. Chang Pao rose through the ranks at break-neck speeds, achieving the rank of Colonel in a matter of years. He died in 1822, leaving Cheng I Sao to raise their 11 year old son (she also had two older boys who were fathered by Cheng I). She appears to have settled in Guangzhou where she purportedly ran a gambling den.

She appears once more in the historical record, briefly, in 1840. Cheng I Sao pressed charges against a Guangdong official for embezzlement of a large sum of money given to him by Cheng Pao in 1810ish. All of the authorities involved found it bizarre that she’d waited 30 years to press charges and eventually the case was dismissed as a trumped up charge. Cheng I Sao died 4 years later. She was 69 years old.

Marissa: Since Cheng I Sao (and her pirates) were illiterate, her life story is not very well-documented. It’s essentially taken from two primary sources and they are far from unbiased. I don’t specialize in Chinese history so I relied a lot on Dian Murray’s careful scholarship about Cheng I Sao. Murray wrote an invaluable chapter called “Cheng I Sao in fact and fiction” in an edited volume called Bold in her Breeches which is so important to understanding the facts and fictions surrounding Cheng I Sao.

Sarah: The first primary source on which this narrative is based is the History of the Pirates who Infested the China Sea from 1807 to 1810 (Ching hai-fen chi) written by Yuen Yung-lun. Yuen was a Chinese official during the Crisis of 1809 and got his information first hand from those who engaged with the pirates. He was not unbiased, however, because he was traumatized by his colleagues’ violent interactions with the pirates. The second is  “A Brief Narrative of my Captivity and Treatment Amongst the Ladrones” written by Richard Glasspoole, officer of the East India Company ship Marquis of Ely who was held captive by Cheng I Sao’s pirates from September to December 1809. He prepared this narrative for the East India Company. The English translation of the first and copies of the second have circulated widely within the English-speaking world and served as the basis for almost every story told about Cheng I Sao. Historian Dian Murray, however, has studied both accounts extensively as well as the stories that they inspired and she has found that, while the sources corroborate each other, their re-tellings have been highly embellished and misinterpreted many times over.

Marissa: Moreover, the narratives were written (and in the first case, translated) before the Wade-Giles system of transliteration became standard so Murray has also discovered ways in which Charles Friedrich Neumann’s translation of Yuen Yung-lun’s narrative worked to exoticize and sensationalize the Chinese pirate world. She gives the example of Green Squadron leader Woo Chetsing whose nickname was Tung-hai pa which Neumann translated as “Scourge of the Eastern Sea.” The translation isn’t “wrong” per se, Tung-hai pa COULD be translated that way but its meaning has been altered by Neumann’s process of translation. Tung-hai which means “Eastern Sea” was the name of Woo Chetsing’s native village and while the character of “pa” can mean something like “scourge” or “fear,” in this context, it’s more properly transliterated as “ba” which meant “uncle”, “elder”, or “earl.” So Woo Chetsing’s nickname was actually “Earl from Eastern Sea Village.” Which is, of course, much less menacing but in line with Chinese naming conventions. In South China, people were typically addressed in ways that addressed their position in the family, their geographic origins, or something about them that stood out and made them recognizable to many (eg. a wonky eye or scar on the cheek).

Sarah: While the process of transliteration makes the work difficult, Murray uncovered what can only be called sloppy work by historians in their discussions of Cheng I Pao. Some are journalists or pop historians, while others are academic historians who did NOT check their sources. For example, there is the seminal work on piracy by Philip Gosse  called “History of Piracy” (1932). While Neumann’s translation has its errors, Gosse compounded these errors by misreading Neumann’s translation causing confusion between Cheng Ch’i and Cheng I AND repeated Neumann’s translation errors. Even worse was Joseph Gollomb’s “Pirates Old and New” (1928) which Murray found to be more fiction than fact, not to mention, super racist.

Marissa: The most disappointing handling of Cheng I Sao’s story is definitely that of Linda Grant de Pauw in “Seafaring Women.” Grant is a celebrated women’s historian from George Washington University. She, however, fell under the spells of Gosse and Gollomb- reproducing many of their inaccuracies. This includes but is not limited to a fabricated story about Cheng I Sao’s “happily ever after” saying that she lived out her days in a palace raising a bevy of kids by Chang Pao. Grant also mixed up Cheng I and Chang Pao, gave Cheng I credit for Chang Pao’s law code, and failed to cite Glasspoole’s narrative even though she almost certainly used it.

Murray found that Chinese articles were more accurate, serious, and less sensationalized. But in spite of that, or perhaps as a result and (?) they focus very little on Cheng I Sao and, instead, focus more on Chang Pao about whom there is more documentation. There are many fictionalized accounts about Chang Pao written in Chinese but NONE portraying Cheng I Sao. In contrast, English-language accounts about Cheng I Sao abound, casting her as a Mulan-like woman warrior and pirate queen.

Sarah: It’s curious that the Chinese are less interested in Cheng I Sao than Europeans and Americans are. She transformed piracy into an avenue for legitimate success; she had authority, especially authority over men; she operated in open defiance of Confucian norms, refusing to be docile, submissive or chaste. She even transgressed the incest taboo by adopting Chang Pao as a son and then marrying him as a lover. Cheng I Sao’s talents were so central to the Pirate Confederacy that it was incapable of existing without her. Therefore, when she retired after her negotiations with Guangdong officials, South China Sea pirates were rudderless (forgive the pun) and no one was able to save the Pirate confederacy in her absence.

Marissa: In some ways, Cheng I Sao was born a typical, impoverished girl on the Guangdong coast: she was illiterate, she used sex work to make ends meet, and she bettered her life through marriage, twice. In today’s world, many people would argue that, as a heroine, she’s flawed. But she IS flawed ABD that’s why she’s so fascinating. She entered history as an illiterate sex worker, possibly from an ethnic group of pariahs; made history as a brutal pirate queen who grew her criminal enterprise so large that imperial China was forced to recognize her power as legitimate and her person as beyond reproach. She appears to have used and abused some, exploited others, and treated most otters with indifference. In a man, these qualities might evoke respect, ambition, and drive. While I fall far short of praising Cheng I Sao at her worst, I do think it’s important for us to acknowledge the ethical quandaries that are ignited by our worship of flawed heroes.


Wade-Giles transliteration became standards  in late 19c (Mao Tse-tung is WG)

Pinyin system post-1949 (Mao Zedong is pinyin)

Cheng I Sao’s Aliases and Alternate Translations

Shi Hsiang -ku

Shih Yang

Zheng Yi Sao

Shi Xianggu

Show Notes

Yüan, Yung-lun, and Karl Friedrich Neumann. History of the Pirates Who Infested the China Sea from 1807-1810. [S.l.]: Cambridge Univ Press, 2011.

Glasspoole, Richard. Mr. Glasspoole and the Chinese Pirates: Being the Narrative. London: Golden Cockerel Press, 1935.

Gosse, Philip. The History of Piracy. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2007. (NOTE ON ACCURACY)

Gollomb, Joseph. Pirates, Old and New. London: Selwyn and Blount, 1931. (NOTE ON ACCURACY)

Murray, Dian. “Mid-Ch’ing Piracy: An Analysis of Organizational Attributes.” Qing Shi Wen Ti, vol. 4, no. 8, Society for Ch’ing Studies, 1982, p. 1-28.

Murray, Dian Hechtner. Sea Bandits: A Study of Piracy in Early Nineteenth Century China. London, Ann Arbor: UMI, 1981.

De Pauw, Linda Grant. Seafaring Women. Pasadena, MD: Peacock Press, 1998. (Note on accuracy)

“Cheng I Sao in Fact and Fiction,” Ch. 13 in Pennell, C. R. Bandits at Sea A Pirates Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Murray, Dian. 1981. “One Woman’s Rise to Power: Cheng I’s Wife and the Pirates”. Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques. 8, no. 3: 147-161.

MacKay, Joseph. 2013. “Pirate Nations: Maritime Pirates As Escape Societies in Late Imperial China”. Social Science History. 37, no. 4: 551-573.

Antony, Robert J. 2006. “State, community, and pirate suppression in Guangdong Province, 1809 – 1810”. Late Imperial China. 271.

“Shi Xianggu”, chapter from Stradling, Jan. Bad Girls & Wicked Women: The Most Powerful, Shocking, Amazing, Thrilling and Dangerous Women of All Time. Sydney: Murdoch Books, 2008.

Hamilton, John. A History of Pirates. Edina, Minn: ABDO Pub. Co, 2007. (juvenile)


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.