From Prostitute to Pirate Queen – The Rise And Reign of Cheng I Sao [鄭一嫂]

An article by Ariana Baray, BEd.

Unifying fierce pirate gangs into a confederation, establishing a strictly enforced Code of Law, gaining enough power to force the official establishment of the time to their knees and living to tell the tale – this was all accomplished by one person on the South China Coast during the late 18th and early 19th century. Astonishingly, the cunning, wit and leadership skills required to achieve these feats, customarily associated with high-ranking military men, were in this case embodied by Cheng I Sao [鄭一嫂)], also known as Ching Shih [鄭氏] a commoner woman.

  • A Powerful Stepping Stone – Marrying a Pirate
  • From Mighty Wife to Formidable Widow
  • The Code of Law – A Women-Protecting Code of Conduct
  • A Surprisingly Happy Ending – Cheng I Sao’s Unusual Exit 
  • Women Aboard Chinese Pirate Ships – Perspectives And Context
  • TLDR

Cheng I Sao – fictional western portrail from the 1836 edition of Charles Johnsons “The History and Lives of the Most Notorious Pirates of All Nations” Digitalized by: Wikipedia Commons

Before we delve into the remarkable feats she accomplished, it must be noted that this article is only possible thanks to the extensive research conducted by Dian H. Murray. Contrary to the romanticisation of European piracy in Western culture, the topic of Chinese piracy has long been neglected. Thus, we have Dian H. Murray in particular to thank for deciding to take the crucial first step into exploring the abundant world of Chinese piracy in the Early Modern Era, thereby laying the necessary groundwork on the topic and unearthing its potential for further exploration. Murrays extensive work on Chinese piracy can be found in her work “Pirates of the South China Coast 1790-1810”[1], in which she grants the reader incredible insight into Chinese piracy within this time period, delving into the complicated constellations and situations of the different actors while simultaneously remaining sensitive to the differences of Chinese culture in comparison to European culture and customs. Murrays chapter “Cheng I Sao in fact and fiction”[2] in the works “Bold in her Breeches” edited by Jo Stanley was of particular use for the writing of this article since the focus lies only on Cheng I Sao in this chapter. In addition to giving the reader the chronological overview of Cheng I Sao’s life, the research conducted in this chapter highlights the importance of critical analysis of source material as Murray uncovers the “untruths and exaggeration”[3] surrounding Cheng I Sao’s story. In her article “One Woman’s Rise to Power: Cheng I’s Wife and the Pirates”[4], Murray focusses on the dynamics and power structures within China at the time to answer the question to which extent Cheng I Sao employed these to rise and establish her position of power. Thus, Murray in particular has shown the remarkable potential of the history of Chinese piracy still to be uncovered and researched.  By successfully tapping into this potential and laying the extensive necessary groundwork, Murray invites us to further immerse ourselves in the world of Cheng I Sao, as shall be done in the following article.


Although Cheng I Sao would arguably go on to become one of the fiercest pirate leaders to have ever lived, her origins can be considered more than humble, since she worked as a prostitute until marrying Cheng I. The fact that Cheng I Sao translates to “wife of Cheng”, Cheng I being the pirate leader of the Red Fleet, is not only a Chinese custom, but also relates to the fact that her actual name is not known, much like most of her life before becoming Cheng I’s wife and thus starting a journey that would make history.

It is generally agreed upon that she was born in the year 1775 and that she was both of considerable beauty as well as exceptional wit and charm. It is therefore hardly surprising that Cheng I became smitten, allegedly courting her before asking her to become his wife, although some historians reject this romantic narrative and instead are of the opinion that he ordered her abduction by his men and subsequently proposed marriage, rendering it a very different setting. At the time of their marriage in the year 1801, Cheng I, himself coming from a lineage of pirates, was one of the contenders for power among the many pirates fighting along the South China Coast. A great number of Chinese fishermen turned pirates had emerged during the end of the 18th century due to the Tayson Rebellion in Vietnam. Its support made piracy quite lucrative; “backed by the material support, sanction, and encouragement of its Tayson sponsors, piracy along the South China Coast burgeoned to the point where associations of several hundred people and several dozen junks came into being.”[5] Regardless of the degree of romance involved in Cheng I’s marriage proposal, the extraordinary charm of Cheng I Sao becomes apparent when considering that she agreed to his marriage proposal, but only under her condition of acquiring half of Cheng I’s reign and power over his fleet. The fleet she demanded shared reign over was one of the biggest piracy fleets of the time. Her tremendous appeal becomes even more evident as he agreed to these conditions and they consequently married on her terms. 


Whether Cheng I proposed out of business interest or because he was truly blinded by love, considering the further happenings after having married Cheng I Sao, he had certainly made an exceptional pick and would not regret his decision. The demands Cheng I Sao had made in order to marry him already allow us insight into the type of person she was and also into how she intended to proceed as Cheng I’s wife. Against the impression one could have considering her name, she was set on playing a much larger role than just that of Cheng I’s wife. She refused to take on the role of merely his romantic partner, waiting for her husband on ship, or worse even, on coast. Instead, her negotiations guaranteed that she would not be reduced to merely being Cheng I’s romantic partner, but would gain the powerful position of being a form of business partner and leader alongside her husband, having 50% of his control and share. Although Chinese piracy in Vietnam was very lucrative at the end of the 18th century, the political situation changed soon after Cheng I Sao’s and Cheng I’s marriage. Following the defeat of the Tayson forces in July 1802, Cheng I and his wife used this new situation to their advantage, unifying the fragmented groups of pirates formerly backed by the Tayson forces into one confederation under their rule[6]. The many gangs of pirates who had previously fought amongst one another now formed an alliance, thereby trading their autonomy for the benefit of shared but heightened profit.

As stated by Murray, Cheng I Sao played a vital role in the development of this confederation, as “Cheng I was the unifier and patriarch, [Cheng I Sao] was consolidator and organizer”[7]. The sheer manpower of this confederation as well as the structural organisation within it must not be underestimated; as Murray states “[the members of the pirate confederation] outnumbered by two times the total forces involved in the Spanish Armada”[8], with estimations running up to “approximately 70000 pirates onboard 1200 vessels”[9]. The confederation consisted of six different branches with the fleets of these branches varying from seventy to three hundred vessel. Each of the branches had their own hierarchy and structure and were led by their individual leaders, however the different leaders of the fleets all ultimately followed the same commander-in-chief: Cheng I Sao and Cheng I. Together they commanded the largest and thus strongest branch, namely the Red Flag Fleet, and were further linked to the “semi-autonomous leader [of the other fleets] who, through a complex series of personal and familial obligations, owed ultimate obedience to the Cheng family”[10], thus making them the ultimate powerholders and leaders of the pirate confederation. The practice of establishing and maintaining leadership by means of close personal relationships was known by the Chinese as “kuan-hsi”[11], a long-practiced method and arguably one of Cheng I Sao’s strongest traits. After having successfully reigned and expanded the Red Flag Fleet alongside her powerful husband, his surprising death in the year 1807 created a power vacuum that Cheng I Sao would use to her benefit.

A chinese Junk – Model from the 19th century in the Musée national de la Marine, PortLouis; Wikipedia Commons, User: Moreauhenri.

After his death, she quickly gained the alliance of the most crucial members within the Red Flag Fleet, thus ensuring her continued leadership before it could be challenged. As Murray states, she secured her position firstly by “[creating] personal relationships that would legitimize her status and allow her to exercise authority”[12], and secondly by employing Chang Pao, Cheng I’s and her adopted son who had been captured and brought into piracy as a young boy by means of a homosexual relationship with Cheng I, to take the position of managing the Red Flag Fleet alongside her, knowing that he “would win the acceptance of the rank and file while at the same time remaining absolute in his loyalty to her”[13]. As her husband before her, she established a sexual relationship with Chang Pao to guarantee the alliance between them and he would later become her second husband, thereby taking Cheng I’s position both romantically and professionally.  Thirdly, although the loyalty of Chang Pao guaranteed her ongoing unquestioned leadership of the Red Flag Fleet, it was still necessary to maintain the respect and acceptance of the semi-autonomous leaders of the other fleets in order to maintain her leading position in the confederation.


It was during this time that Cheng I Sao accomplished one of her most remarkable feats, namely the establishment of a strict and strongly enforced Code of Law[14] in the year 1807, guaranteeing order and discipline within the confederation. It must be noted that the implementation and strict adherence to the Code of Law was not limited to the Red Flag Fleet, but occurred in all fleets of the pirate confederation, thus constituting an important step in the unification of fleets. Unfortunately, due to the scope of this article, only select aspects of the Code of Law may be discussed. Considering that “anyone caught giving commands on his own or disobeying those from a superior was to be immediately decapitated”[15]; the importance of the ranks and the pirates’ adherence to their individual positions and roles becomes quite clear, illustrating that strict organisation with swift punishment for offenses against rank were crucial to maintain order and structure within the confederation. “Pilfering from the common treasury or public fund (kung-hsiang) and stealing from villagers who supplied the pirates were also capital offenses”[16]. Considering the public fund was essential to guarantee the further development and strong financial standing of the confederation, it comes as no surprise that the misappropriation of funds had to be severely punished. Conversely, although it may seem strange to punish pirates for stealing and extortion, it must be noted that allied villagers needed to remain untouched. The severity of the punishments for offenses against allied villagers along the coast lies in the confederation’s reliance on the supply of food and goods[17] they provided, since these were essential for successful battle at sea, and interfering with these supply chains would potentially harm the overall organisation of the pirate confederation. However, the Code of Law did not only provide formal guidelines for hierarchical and financial aspects; it further regulated the social conduct between pirates and female captives especially. “If a pirate raped a female captive, he was put to death. If the two fornicated by mutual consent, the man was beheaded and the woman was cast overboard with a weight attached to her legs”[18]. The only way in which a pirate could legitimately form a relationship with a female captive was by marriage, in which case “he was obliged to be loyal to her; no promiscuous sexual activities were supposed to occur”[19]. Thus, Cheng I Sao put a strong emphasis on the importance of marriage through the Code of Law and even provided protection from rape for female captives, arguably showing the female perspective of the lawmaker.


The strict organisation enforced by the Code of Law further heightened the success of the pirate confederation, rendering the Chinese officials helpless in their fight against piracy and forcing them to resort to seeking help from the West in the year 1809[21]. When even this measure failed, it finally occurred to the Chinese officials that the pirates could not be successfully fought but had to be otherwise negotiated into a favourable position. Remarkably, despite her alluring and incredibly successful reign of piracy, the end of Cheng I Sao’s era as the pirate queen may be the most exceptional part of the whole story, since she may be one of the few people in history to perfectly make use of the saying “quit while you’re ahead”. Thus, on 18 April 1810, Cheng I Sao, contrary to many other historical figures, took the perfect opportunity to end her ruthless reign herself and make the jump to the winning side; after Chang Pao had not managed to achieve a settlement in February of that year, she set out for negotiations herself and only two days later managed to reach an agreement with the Chinese officials[22]. However, as if anything else could be expected from the Dragon Lady of the South China Coast, just as she negotiated and agreed to marriage with Cheng I only on her terms, she also negotiated a more than satisfactory deal for the end of her reign of piracy. The fact that Cheng I Sao was able and daring enough to negotiate favourable conditions shows that the Chinese officials had no chance of otherwise regaining control, as well as the type of extraordinarily charismatic person she must have been. Few people in history have succeeded in reaching a position so strong that it forced entire regimes to acquiesce to their demands. This feat, already impressive, is virtually unheard of when considering not merely the gender, but even more so, to put it lightly, the exceptionally humble origins of the person who achieved it. The conditions set by Cheng I Sao further prove her position of power as well as her extraordinary talent for negotiation, even going as far as brokering her won terms of defeat (if it can even really be called that). Cheng I Sao argued that her fleet as well as herself should be spared from any form of punishment or consequences for their actions during times of piracy. This in itself is arguably already quite a bold demand to make as the head of one of the most notorious pirate fleets to have ever sailed the seas. However, the demands do not stop here. Additionally, Cheng I Sao insisted that not only would the pirates remain without punishment, but that they should also be allowed to “retain the proceeds of their profession and were granted places in the imperial military bureaucracy”[23], thus ensuring them financial stability from their prior occupation, a future with employment and even, to a certain degree, prestige. For herself and her former adoptive son turned second husband, Cheng I Sao naturally asked for even more prestigious positions, granting her husband a high-ranking position as a lieutenant colonel, which he would serve as from November 1810 on[24], and herself becoming a successful businesswoman in the salt trade, as well as the owner of multiple gambling houses and a brothel. The Chinese regime agreed to these terms, and thus, with only a very small number of pirates eventually facing punishment, whilst the grand majority of the confederation was granted a future without repercussions for their doings, Cheng I Sao made the step from a pirate queen only abiding by her own Code of Law to a lawfully established and wealthy businesswoman, having arguably landed the sweetest deal made in the history of piracy. She went on to lead a successful life, being wealthy and accomplished in presumably every way possible at the time, and ultimately died in 1844 at the (for those times) ripe old age of 69, passing away peacefully in her sleep[25].

Victims and Enemies of Cheng I Sao – The foreign trading companies in Guangzhou(Canton) – Glass Painting 1805 – Wikipedia Commons


The appeal of Cheng I Sao’s story seems undeniable, considering the different aspects that combine to show her life story: a virtually unknown common prostitute so charismatic, beautiful and intriguing that she catches the eye of one of the most infamous and powerful pirate leaders of the time, together building a piracy empire that can’t be tamed by either the Chinese establishment nor the Western powers, playing and outsmarting the system to her advantage and ultimately ending victoriously. However, it is precisely because of the popular appeal of Cheng I Sao’s story that it is crucial to put in effort not to romanticise the story for heightened appeal at the cost of losing historical validity. As Murray points out, “the subject [of piracy in the West] has been romanticised and glamorised to such an extent that historical fiction has overtaken history, and much of what we think is known is more myth than truth. In China, by contrast, piracy is a subject that has not only not been glamorised, but is virtually unknown”[26]. Thus, it is imperative to avoid the examination of Cheng I Sao and her reign of piracy through the lens of a Western perspective. For instance, in contrast to Western ships of the time, it was not unheard of for women to be aboard pirate ships. Although Cheng I Sao, in her position as a leader of the pirate confederation, can by no means be considered anything short of remarkable, her presence on board the ships as a woman was not the exception, as pirates often had their wives and children aboard the ship they sailed with[27]. Contrary to the typical picture one may have of Chinese women of the time as timid women with bound feet, “aboard ship the women worked as hard as the men. […] These pirate women, however feminine and flirtatious they might have seemed at first glance, were tough and aggressive. With unbound feet they were active and mobile, able to hold rank and command entire junks themselves. In the heat of battle, they sometimes even fought side by side with their husbands”[28].

Another remarkable aspect of Cheng I Sao’s story is that of social mobility. Cheng I Sao can be seen as a perfect example of this, as she climbed the social ranks within piracy, taking advantage of the great social mobility allowed therein. The appeal may have been similar to that of those enticed into piracy under the Tayson; “for most of those who became pirates, entry into the upper reaches of society was beyond the realm of possibility; […] but within pirate brotherhoods this underclass had a chance at social mobility. Through their own efforts and military prowess, they could become “somebodies”. They could receive rank, honour, and recognition, and attain the prestige denied them onshore”[29]. Thus, Cheng I Sao similarly profited from the social mobility enabled by piracy, although her way of climbing ranks and establishing her leading position through marriage and personal relationships is also not unheard of. “[…] Cheng I Sao’s ascent was very much in keeping with the tradition of Chinese women rising to power through marriage. Marrying well and then assuming the mantle of power on the death of a husband was the most common avenue of female mobility in nearly every Chinese social circle”[30].

The aforementioned aspects show that Cheng I Sao employed chances and customs that were already common in Chinese culture and life. Aspects that may be of exceptional interest from a Western perspective, such as her presence aboard pirate ships as an openly visible woman, are less shocking when put into the historical and cultural context and setting they took place in. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the accomplishments achieved by Cheng I Sao are exceptional and her story has strong appeal. Regardless of whether the customs she employed were already established, Cheng I Sao made it a point to take advantage of these customs like few other people before and thereby accomplished feats that are astounding and intriguing to read about, even to this day.


The aim of this article is to provide a brief overview of the life and reign of Cheng I Sao. She was undeniably a remarkable negotiator, business woman, leader, as well as, and leading back to the topic of this blog, a superb example of a seafaring woman during the Early Modern Period. For further reading on this topic, see the works of Dian H. Murray listed in the footnotes.


[1] Murray, Dian: Pirates of the South China Coast. 1790-1810, California 1987.

[2] Murray, Dian: Cheng I Sao in fact and fiction, in: Stanley, Jo (ed.): Bold in her Breeches, London 1995.

[3] Murray: Cheng I Sao in fact and fiction, p. 225.

[4] Murray, Dian: One Woman’s Rise to Power: Cheng I’s Wife and the Pirates, in: Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, 8:3 (1981).

[5]Murray, Dian: One Woman’s Rise to Power, p. 149.

[6] Murray: One Woman’s Rise to Power, p. 149.

[7] Murray: One Woman’s Rise to Power, p. 149.

[8] Murray: One Woman’s Rise to Power, p. 148.

[9] Murray: One Woman’s Rise to Power, p. 148.

[10] Murray: One Woman’s Rise to Power, p. 149.

[11] Murray: Pirates of the South China Coast, p. 53.

[12] Murray: Pirates of the South China Coast, p. 71.

[13] Murray: Pirates of the South China Coast, p. 71.

[14] Murray: Pirates of the South China Coast, p, 72. For more information on the Code of Law, I recommend Murray’s “Pirates of the South China Coast”, in which she summarises and explains the different points established in the Code of Law. She takes the term “Code of Laws” and the description thereof from the works of Maughan, a captive aboard one of the pirate ships.

[15] Murray: Pirates of the South China Coast, p. 72.

[16] Murray: Pirates of the South China Coast, p. 72.

[17] Murray: Pirates of the South China Coast, p. 89.

[18] Murray: Pirates of the South China Coast, p. 72.

[19] Murray: Pirates of the South China Coast, p. 72.

[20] Murray: Pirates of the South China Coast, p. 72.

[21] Murray: Bold in her Breeches, p. 211.

[22] Murray: Bold in her Breeches, p. 211.

[23] Murray: Cheng I Sao in fact and fiction, p. 211.

[24] Murray: Bold in her Breeches, p. 211.

[25] Murray: Bold in her Breeches, p. 212.

[26] Murray: Cheng I Sao in fact and fiction, p. 208.

[27] Murray: Cheng I Sao in fact and fiction, p. 207.

[28] Murray: Pirates of the South China Coast, p. 78.

[29] Murray: Pirates of the South China Coast, p. 54.

[30] Murray: Cheng I Sao in fact and fiction, p. 232.

OpenEdition schlägt Ihnen vor, diesen Beitrag wie folgt zu zitieren:
Simon Karstens (25. Februar 2021). From Prostitute to Pirate Queen – The Rise And Reign of Cheng I Sao [鄭一嫂]. Identifying Maritime Women in the Age of Sail. Abgerufen am 12. Juli 2024 von

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Eine Antwort

  1. Cassandra D. sagt:

    Very interesting and detailed insight into Cheng I Sao’s life. Thank you! 🙂

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