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Ching Shih, the legendary Pirate Queen of the South China Sea, stands as one of the most formidable figures in maritime history. From humble beginnings in 18th-century China, she rose to command the notorious Red Flag Fleet, amassing a force of over 1,800 ships and 80,000 pirates. Her strategic brilliance, strict code of conduct, and unyielding leadership helped her evade capture ad defeat even the most powerful naval forces of the time.

Ching Shih
Ching Shih: The Queen of Pirates


Born as Shi Yang(石陽) in 1775 in around Xinhui, Guangdong. Many say that she was possibly a Tanka, and have worked as a courtesan or prostitute on a floating Tanka brothel, but there are no actual proofs to prove this claim.

Shi Yang at 26, then married Zheng Yi in 1801 and was named as ‘Zheng Yi Sao’ by the people of Guangdong. Shi Yang’s husband was a pirate who fought as a privateer for the Vietnamese Tây Sơn dynasty in the Tây Sơn wars and later Nguyễn Ánh (Gia Long), first emperor of the Nguyễn dynasty. Zheng Yi hailed from a family of pirates whose ancestry traced back to the Great Ming Dynasty. Zheng Yi had an adopted son, Zhang Bao whom he abducted in 1798 when Zhang Bao was age 15 and pressed Zhang into piracy. Shi Yang would later have a relationship with her step-son and marry him.

A year after Zheng Yi and Shi Yang’s marriage, Zheng Yi’s cousin Zheng Qi, would be captured and executed by the Nguyễn forces in Jiangping, and so Zheng Yi took over his cousin’s fleet and sailed back to the Chinese coast together with the rest of the Chinese Pirates formerly under the Tây Sơn patronage.

In the coast of Guangdong, a period of infighting among the pirates happened, and with the help of Shi Yang- now known as Zheng Yi Sao, who was a capable organizer. Her husband, Zheng Yi was able to unite all the pirates into a confederation through the signing of an agreement in July 1805. The confederation consisted of six fleets that can be recognized by their flag colors- red, blue, white, purple, yellow, and black. And Shi Yang’s husband, Zheng Yi commanded the Red Flag Fleet which was the biggest fleet.

In 1803, Zheng Yi Sao had her first son with his husband, Zheng Yi named Zheng Yingshi (鄭英石) while their second son, Zheng Xiongshi (鄭雄石) was born in 1807.


At the age of just 42, Zheng Yi fell overboard in a gale and died on the 16th of the 11th month in 1807. And so, Zhng Yi Sao took over her husband’s operations with the support of Zheng Yi’s nephew Zheng Baoyang (鄭保養) and also Zheng Anbang (鄭安邦) who is Zheng Qi’s son. Zheng Yi Sao managed to balance the different factions of the federation, as she was also familiar with the leader of the second biggest fleet in the confederation.

Most importantly, Zheng Yi Sao also had the support of Zhang Bao who became the commander of her deceased husband’s fleet. So Zheng Yi Sao effectively inherited Zheng Yi’s informal command over the whole Pirate Confederation.

After taking control of the confederation, it was said that Zheng Yi Sao and Zhang Bao entered a sexual relationship, it was also rumored that they were already intimate even before Zheng Yi died. And according to a government official- Wen Chengzi(溫承誌) who led the negotiations with Zheng Yi Sao and Zhang Bao with the Viceroy of Liangguang Bai Ling (百齡) later in 1810 “Zhang Bao obeyed Zheng Yi Sao’s orders, and consulted her on all things before acting”

After a year of Zheng Yi Sao’s taking on power, the Pirate Confederation became significantly more active. In September of 1808, Zhang Bao destroyed a fleet of 35 ships which happened by luring Ling Guoliang, the brigade-general of Humen. And a month later, Zhang Bao also defeated the lieutenant-colonel Lin Fa. And with just these two engagements, the Chinese provincial fleet was reduced in half and cleared the way for the pirates to enter the Pearl River.

In March of 1909, Provincial Commander Sun Quanmou (孫全謀) with around a 100 ships under his command, engaged in a small group of pirates near Dawanshan Island, the pirates asked Zheng Yi Sao for help. Before the battle, Zheng Yi Sao strategized a plan that was put into action with the Red Flag Fleet and the White Flag Feet. On the 21st of July the same year, the Qing Navy caused a heavy blow to the Pirate COnfederation by killing the commander of the White Flag Fleet, Liang Bao and the destruction of his fleet. But this did not happen without a cost of losing brigade-general Xu Tinggu (許廷桂) and a handful of ships to Zhang Bao.

But this defeat did not discourage Zheng Yi Sao, but she instead ordered a massive raid, with the Red Flag Fleet of Zhang Bao, the Black Flag Fleet with Gou Podai, and she, herself leading her own personal fleet. This raid destroyed towns, villages, and killed approx. 10,000 civilians if not more. On the 27th of September, Zheng Yi Sao personally took command of 500 ships, and on the 29th, she ordered Zhang Bao a raid to the town of Shating in which he capture around 400 civilians; on the 2nd of October, she also ordered Gou Podai to anchor Jigongshi in which he raided two days later.

By late October, the Provincial fleet regained strength and was ready to take action under the command of Sun Quanmou but was utterly defeated again by Zhang Bao on the evening of the 21st of October.


In 1810, the Pirate Confederation saw the end. Many sources differ as to why the pirates surrendered.

A source said that by early 1810, the pirates began to realize that they were in such a position of power that they could negotiate with the government without punishment or reparations being imposed on them. As the Guangdong government was so desperate to end piracy that they were ready to legitimize their power in exchange for their retirement.

An alternative source said that by the end of 1809, the tides were turning against Zheng Yi Sao and her lover, Zhang Bao and the whole Pirate Confederation. The leader of the Black Flag Fleet, Gou Podai refused to reinforce Zheng Yi Sao and Zhang Bao during the Battle of Tung Chung Bay, and he then later battled with Zhang Bao openly near Humen. You Podai officially surrendered to the Viceroy of Liangguang, Bai Ling on the 13th of January in 1810 and was rewarded with the rank of sublieutenant. 

On the 17th of April the same year, Zheng Yi Sao personally led a delegation of 17 women and children to the  Yamen at Guangzhou and negotiated with Bai Ling, where he yielded to her demands. Zheng Yi Sao and Zhang Bao officially surrendered to Bailing near Furongsha on the 20th of April in 1810 with 17,318 pirates, 226 ships, 1,315 cannon and 2,798 assorted weapons. Zheng Yi Sao surrendered her own personal fleet of 24 ships and 1,433 pirates, while Zhang Bao was allowed to retain a private fleet of 20 to 30 ships and was awarded the rank of a lieutenant. They were also granted permission to marry each other, and the whole pirate crew was pardoned and received pork, wine and money.


After surrendering, Zhang Bao defeated the Blue Flag Fleet under Wu Shi’er near Leizhou Peninsula. Zhang Bao, with Zheng Yi Sao, was later transferred to Min’an, Fujian where Zheng Yi Sao gave birth to a son, Zhang Yulin, in 1813. Zheng Yi Sao also gave birth to a daughter but the time and name are unknown.

Zhang Bao died at 39 in 1822 near Penghu while serving as a colonel in charge of the garrison. In 1824, together with her son, Zheng Yi Sao returned to Guangdong. 

And in 1844, Zheng Yi Sao died at the age of 68 or 69, having led a peaceful life after the death of her second husband. She was also an owner of an infamous gambling house in Guangdong.


A life of violence, and struggle for power is what we can describe the life of Zheng Yi Sao. She is a woman of power, schemes and intelligence. Her life served as an inspiration to many movies and books.

Category: Interesting Facts

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