The story of Zheng Yi Sao is one as old as time: a Cantonese prostitute rises from the dregs of a floating brothel to command 70,000 pirates in the South China Sea. 

Little is known about Zheng Yi Sao's early life, but we do know about the crazy-ass time and place in which she lived. She was born in 1775 in the Guangdong province of China when the area’s population was fucking booming, so much that society spilled off of the mainland and into the sea. Families lived in houseboats, and businesses operated on floating platforms while ships carrying valuable cargo sailed in and out of the area's ports.

The region's pirate trade was born of innocent fishermen conducting maritime business below board to make ends meet. By the 1800s, those innocent fishermen dabbling in pirating partnered with a rebel group that overthrew the Vietnamese government, which injected the pirate trade with funds, battle experience and positions of power in exchange. 

One of those pirates was rising star Zheng Yi, who came from a long line of swashbucklers and whom we shall refer to as “Pirate Daddy.”  

Now, like any self-respecting seafarer, Pirate Daddy frequented a floating brothel to visit his favorite lady of the evening, 26-year-old Shi Xianggu. 

Some sources say that Pirate Daddy was so enamored with Shi Xianggu that he captured her as his bride. Others say Shi Xianggu, a sophisticated political strategist, forged a contract with Zheng Yi, agreeing to marry him under the condition she gain 50% control and share of his growing pirate fleet. We're going to go with the latter. And so, in 1801, Shi Xianggu wed Pirate Daddy and became Zheng Yi Sao. 

By 1805, the Chinese pirate trade was ravaged by infighting. Pirate Daddy and six other pirate leaders were like, “Fuck this, let’s go corporate!” And so they forged an alliance. The resulting Pirate Confederation included seven fleets, each flying under a different color flag. The Red Flag fleet was the strongest — the most gangster, if you will — and led by Pirate Daddy, and thus he sat atop the entire alliance.

It just so happens that Pirate Daddy fell overboard and died suddenly in 1807, either by falling overboard, being pushed, or blasted by a cannonball — no one really knows. Zheng Yi Sao assumed full power, and, like a baddie, married her deceased husband's adopted son, Zhang Bao. By adopted son we mean the man Pirate Daddy kidnapped Zhang Bao as a child and raised him. Apparently, that's what adopting is in the pirate world. We will refer to Zhang Bao as "Husband-Son."

Zheng Yi Sao was obviously a strategic powerhouse with massive fucking balls of steal. The marriage to Husband-Son solidified her position as someone not to be fucked with. After Pirate Daddy’s death, she assumed power of 70,000 pirates. Do you know how many Blackbeard had at his absolute best? 300. While Blackbeard is arguably the most well-known pirate of all time, Zheng Yi Sao makes him look like a little bitch.

The Pirate Confederation, although organized, was fragile and based on personal relationships that could shatter at any time. Zheng Yi Sao saw the writing on the wall and put her brilliant critical thinking skills to work. 

She drew up laws to keep the fleet of 70,000 in check. Some sources attribute the laws to Husband-Son, but for the sake of our story, we're going to go with Zheng Yi Sao.

The laws read as follows:

  • If any pirate goes privately on shore, he shall be taken, his ears mutilated, he will be paraded around the fleet and executed.
  • Not the least thing shall be taken privately from the stolen and plundered goods, all shall be registered. The pirate receives for himself, out of ten parts, only two; eight parts belong to the storehouse, called the general fund; those who steal anything out of this general fund, shall be executed.
  • Women captured from villages shall not be harmed or harassed. All women captives shall be registered, their place of origin recorded and be given separate quarters. Those who rape or commit adultery with the women captives shall be executed.

(We never said she was an angel). 

Zheng Yi Sao also formalized the division of booty. Twenty percent of goods seized went to those involved in obtaining it while the rest went into a communal fund. Zheng Yi Sao's operation was so successful that by 1810, they outpowered the Chinese Navy. 

Her pirates were said to be crazy fucking violent to members of the Chinese Navy when they captured them. Among their favorite ways to brutally kill them was ripping out their hearts and eating them (to absorb their military prowess); and nailing their feat to the deck while they hacked them to pieces. Preeeeeeeeetty fucking crazy.

With no other avenues left, The Qing government offered Zheng Yi Sao and Husband-Son a retirement package — or rather the government was like, “Please for fuck’s sake stop with all of the pirate shit,”

 Not to give up her hard-earned upper power, Zheng Yi Sao negotiated maintaining control of 20-30 ships and keeping all of the sweet, sweet booty she accumulated.

And with that, records of Zheng Yi Sao's lived out the rest of her days running a gambling house until she died around age 69. 

Editors Note: For the record, we don’t know if any of this is true. It’'s been debated how much of Zheng Yi Sao's story is bullshit, or if she even existed. But there is one thing her story is: fucking fun, and we could all use a little fun right now, right? Right. Carry on.

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