Cheng I Sao, A Widowed Prostitute Who Ran The Most Successful Pirate Fleet The World Has Ever Seen.

by Daniel Russ on August 7, 2012

Ching Shih, or Cheng I Sao, Cantonese Pirate

Ching Shih, or Cheng I Sao


In the early 19th century, pirates thrummed through the intricate waterways from the South China Seas to the Sulu Sea and west as far as the Bay of Bengal. A successful pirateer known as Cheng, also Zheng Yi, married a beautiful young Cantonese prostitute known as Ching Shih. It was an unusual marriage given the times. Bonnie and Clyde killed and purloined. As it turns out so did Chih Shih and her husband Cheng. Still that doesn’t properly put Cheng I Sao (Wife of Sao) in the same unholy ranks as sociopathic gangsters racing through the empty unpaved highways of the west.


The priates’ tactics were simple. They simply raided boats and took the loot. Often they brutalized people, or they enslaved people or sold them. Stories abound that they liked to nail people’s feet to the ground and then beat them. They took protection funds just like the Mafia. They engendered fear and obsequious obedience. Certainly some egregious tortures were perpetrated upon lots of the Zheng’s victims, and the stories that preceded them served to inculcate terror in people. In 1807, Cheng died and left Cheng I Sao a dowager. She did not retire. She took the reigns of her husband’s operation and ran it like Oprah Winfrey would have. She culled together various pirate forces into an integrated fleet of 80,000 people, 500 junks and cobbled together a disciplined business empire.


The first thing she did was either married or just partnered with Cheng Pao Sai, her husband’s second in command. No group of unruly Chinese pirates would ever follow an unknown woman. Cheng Pao himself was captured at the age of 15 and raised by pirates. But Cheng I Sao, Ching Shih, had to prove herself and she did.


Americans have been ensorcelled by the romantic notions about piracy, probably all of them are Walt Disney’s fault. However, Cheng I Sao was a ruthless cruel sociopath. She robbed fishermen, craftsmen, boat builders and rice growers, and forced them to pay regularly just to be allowed to operate. She created a sort of ecosystem of extortion and racketeering that made her very wealthy.


Cheng I Sao was kind to women, given that she was a career criminal whose activities brought death and pain and poverty and fear to her victims. When capturing people, she commanded her men to take only the ones that pleased them. Un attractive women were returned. Pretty captives were auctioned off to the men that cared for them. Rapists were killed or castrated. She even created a solid enforced code of loot sharing.


They were more than just pirates.  They were a regional corporation and the Cantonese government. So Cantonese authorities impetrated Portuguese, British and American mercenaries to rid the seas of her. The government tried to force her to the negotiating table but a mixture of dilatory negotiations and outright violence brought Cheng I Sao to prevail. Finally the Cantonese government resorted to an old liberal nostrum: total amnesty. It worked.


In fact the pirate were rewarded for years of looting and brutality with the rights to keep their loot and many were even given employment in the Imperial Qing Navy.


Cheng I Sao retired and died wealthy at the age of 69 in 1844.


Chinese Junk

Chinese Junk; Stanley, J., (1995). Bold in her breeches: Women pirates across the ages. London: Harper Collins Publishers: Wiki

Zheng Yi belonged to a family of successful


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

jalyn klejch February 5, 2016 at 9:17 am

can you leave an phone number or a e-mail so i or someone can contact you!!!!!

Louis September 18, 2017 at 9:39 am

Well, it worked for Pompey in 66 BC. Most pirates are usually out of luck people forced to pick a live of crime, as that is better than the alternative, namely starvation, or being killed by other pirates.
And if it pays, and ensures that you have food on your plate at the end of the day, that’s a win.
Also apparantly there were not many former pirates going back to pirating after the amnesty deal, as they now had a job.

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