Everyone loves a good rag-to-riches story — from classic fairytales like Cinderella to more contemporary tales like Working Girl, or even real-life moguls like Corazon Ong of CDO Foodsphere. These stories are intriguing and inspiring. What if I told you, there’s one rag-to-riches story in Chinese history that rarely ever gets told? It’s the story of Zheng Shi, a prostitute turned Princess of the Seas.
In 1801, there was a pirate named Zheng Yi. He was the captain of a fleet called the “Red Flag Fleet.” He saw a prostitute with whom he became enamored. There are stories that say that Zheng Yi ordered his crew to plunder the brothel and bring him his favorite prostitute.
Other accounts state that he simply asked the beautiful woman to marry him and she agreed — with certain conditions. These included having some power over his organization and sharing an equal part in all of his spoils. Whichever story is true, the two did start running the Red Flag Fleet together.
Under the guidance of the married co-captains, the fleet quickly grew from 200 ships to more than 600 to about 1,700-1,800 ships. They color coded their ships with the red fleet as the lead. Yellow, green, black, white, and blue colored the rest of the fleets. Together with another pirate named Wu Shi Er, the three formed the Cantonese Pirate Coalition.
Zheng Yi had a second-in-command named Chang Pao, who the two had adopted as a son and was also Zheng Yi’s lover. He could take over the fleet upon Zheng Yi’s death, which occurred in 1807, six years later. That’s when the lady pirate truly got the name Zheng Shi, which means “Zheng’s widow.”
Zheng Shi decided that she didn’t want to return to the life of prostitution and saw this as an opportunity — she could become a powerful female pirate lord. With the support of Chang Pao, who she took as her husband, she did just that.
She gathered all her fleet captains and announced: “Under the leadership of a man, you have all chosen to flee. We shall see how you prove yourselves under the hand of a woman.”
She had strict rules for her fleet, and she focused on business and military strategy. Her pirates were bound to and protected by laws and taxes.
- All attacks must be approved by Zheng Shi. Any unapproved attacks shall result in beheading.
- Any loot that was seized would be registered and then distributed by superiors. 20% of the spoils would be awarded to the ship that captured the loot, 80% would be put into the fleet’s collective fund.
- No one was allowed to desert their post without permission. Otherwise their ears would be cut off, then paraded around for all to see since you clearly were not using them. Disobey this rule twice, and you would be punished by death.
- Having consensual sex with female captives without permission will result in your beheading and her taking a swim while attached to a lead weight.
- You may only have sex with female captives if you shall take them as your wife. You are bound to be faithful and to care for her.
- If you rape a female captive, you will be beheaded. The same goes for being unfaithful to your wife.
The Red Flag Fleet took over coastal villages from Macau to Canton, imposing levies and taxes in some towns. Zheng Shi earned the nickname, “The Terror of South China,” and she would punish those who resisted her by nailing their feet to her ship’s deck and beating them.
Chinese, Portuguese, and British naval ships were all lost to Zheng Shi’s fleet. The Chinese offered amnesty to all pirates when it became clear she could not be defeated. They were hoping to eliminate the female pirate’s reign over the seas. Negotiations between Chang Pao and the official Zhang Bai Ling hit a deadlock when the Chinese government demanded that the pirates kneel before them. There was also a disagreement regarding what would happen to the loot.
Zheng Shi marched into Zhang Bai Ling’s office accompanied by 17 illiterate women and children, unarmed of course. They concluded negotiations with Zheng Shi being allowed to keep all her loot. The kneeling was resolved by Zhang Bai Ling witnessing the marriage of Zheng Shi to Chang Pao, where they would both have to kneel before Zhang Bai Ling in thanks. Zheng Shi then ended her reign as a pirate and had a son with Chang Pao.
When Chang Pao died, Zheng Shi returned to Canton and opened a gambling house and brothel. She remained in Canton until she died in 1844, at 69 years old, as a wealthy and widely respected individual.
To learn about other interesting women in Chinese history, read on here.