In 1801, a pirate named Zheng Yi was busy raiding Canton. Aside from the prerequisite plundering and rum-drinking, he had given his men one specific order: to break into a local brothel and bring him the prostitute Zheng Yi Sao (郑一嫂), or “Zheng Yi’s wife”.
One might expect a sinister fate to have awaited Zheng Yi Sao upon her deliverance to the pirate captain (rape, swiftly followed by murder, being the most obvious). In actuality, Zheng Yi’s intentions were considerably more gentlemanly.
He intended to marry her. And recognizing that her current future prospects were rather limited, Zheng Yi Sao accepted.
But Zheng Yi Sao didn’t intend on spending the rest of her days as some plunder-hungry pirate’s eye candy. She wanted to become a pirate as well, and she did – one of the greatest pirates to have ever lived.
That first part doesn’t do justice, here read this:
Right from the get-go, Zheng Yi Sao displayed a staggering degree of cunning. She happily accepted Zheng Yi’s proposal, but only on the condition that he share his wealth and power with her, equally. Then, while her new husband went about his pirate duties – further plunder and rum-drinking, presumably – she focused on the business side of things. The result was that in six years, she had engineered an alliance between Zheng Yi and his former pirate rivals, amassed a force of some 1500 ships (called the Red Flag Fleet) and created a swashbuckling empire that extended all the way from Korea to Malaysia.
Zheng Yi certainly knew how to pick ‘em.
Unfortunately, Zheng Yi was killed in 1807 after a misunderstanding with a typhoon. Unfortunate for him, but extremely fortunate for Zheng Yi Sao. Refusing to step aside like a good, diligent widow, Zheng Yi Sao took charge of the Red Flag Fleet, convinced her late husband’s First Mate to support her and swiftly set about making herself the most respected and/or feared individual in all the East.
If films/books/video games have taught us anything, it’s that pirates were a rowdy bunch at the best of times, and their attitudes towards women were…less than progressive. Zheng Yi Sao, of course, was having none of that and quickly established a new pirate code to keep her peg-legged men in line. Anyone who looted a town that had already paid tribute had their head cut off and was dumped in the ocean. Anyone caught, or even suspected, of stealing from the treasury had their head cut off and was dumped in the ocean. Anyone who raped a female prisoner had their head cut off and was dumped in the ocean (there’s a pattern there somewhere).
Needless to say, Zheng Yi Sao was not messing around. Not all her laws were quite so decapitation-happy, though. Ugly female prisoners were to be set free, and when a crewmember purchased one of the prettier captives, he had no choice but to marry her.
But if he was unfaithful…head cut off, dumped in the ocean.
After just one year leading her pirate hegemony, Zheng Yi Sao had formed one of the largest navies on the planet, with some 17,000 men under her command. Extorted tributes from merchants across the Chinese seas and from the coastal towns between Macau and Canton swelled her treasury to staggering levels, and her power was so great that she became the de facto government of the region. No longer was she merely a pirate; she was an entire political entity.