Pirates of old are well known. Their names having come down to us through the ages.

On the male side are William Kidd, Blackbeard, Black Bart, Long Ben, and Sir Henry Morgan. All notorious.

The female side not neglected. Women like Anne Bonny, Mary Reed, Grace O’Malley, and Rachel Wall. Each as tough as their male counterparts.

There is one additional noteworthy female pirate. A woman whose name is unknown to most. Perhaps because she was Chinese and ruled the China Sea. As opposed to Caribbean, Atlantic and European shores.

Her name Cheng I Sao.

I discovered in researching Cheng I Sao that the names of Chinese women change during the course of a life time for various reasons. Cheng I Sao was known by different names at various times in her life.

Cheng I Sao was born Shi Xianggu. At a young age, she became a Cantonese prostitute. Her prostitute name Shih Yang. She worked in a brothel, never the streets.

In 1801 while a teenage beauty, she was captured by pirates. The leader of the pirates was the notorious Cheng I.

Cheng I was looking over the female captives which included Shih Yang. He was deciding which to keep for his men and which to sell into slavery. For whatever reason, Shih Yang attacked Cheng I. She tried to scratch his eyes out.

Shih Yang made an impression on Cheng I. He loved not only her beauty, but also her aggressiveness.

Shih Yang was one smart female, regardless of her age. Cheng I fell in love with her.  Wanted to marry her.  Shih Yang was hesitant. She had a price. Her terms were that she would share in his booty on an equal fifty/fifty basis. She would share similarly in authority.

Cheng I was in love. He agreed.

Shih Yang became known as Ching Sish.

Cheng I lived up to his part of the bargain. Ching Sish became a known and feared pirate leader.

Cheng I was strong and assertive. Rather than fight each other, he thought the pirates should unite. One fleet. The enemy henceforth being the Chinese, British, Portuguese, and Dutch.

Everyone agreed. An alliance was formed. Named the Red Flag Fleet. Instantaneously, the most powerful pirate fleet in China.

Cheung Po Tasi was the son of a fisherman. He was forced into piracy at 15 when captured by Cheng I. Cheng I liked him and adopted him. Cheung rose in the ranks. He was a detail man. Both Cheng I and Ching Sish left the everyday operations of the Red Flag Fleet to him.

Cheng I died in 1807. Of unknown causes.


The Red Flag Fleet pirates met to select a new leader. Ching Sish brazenly walked into the gathering. Dressed spectacularly. Brash and assertive. She convinced the pirates gathered that she should be leader.

Her leadership from that point forward was never questioned.

Her cunning and ruthless leadership resulted in the Red Flag Fleet growing to over 400 Chinese 20 gun junks. Pirates to 30,000.

She used intimacy to gain her ends. She and the adopted son Cheung Po Tsai became lovers. Subsequently married.

Along the way, Ching Sish’s name had become Cheng I Sao.

In the three years following her first husband’s death, Cheng I Sao became the most prominent and successful pirate in the China Sea. She whipped the ships of every nation. Never lost a battle.

In one fight against the Chinese, she captured 63 Chinese Navy vessels. She gave the captured Chinese sailors a choice. They could join her or die. Death was by being tied down on the deck and beaten with clubs.

China was controlled at the time by the Qing Dynasty. Also known as the Manchu Dynasty.

Cheng I Sao terrorized the China Sea. An armada of Chinese, British and Dutch ships was sent out to defeat her. She whipped their asses.

Commercial shipping was taking a beating. The Chinese, British, Portuguese and Dutch were suffering economically as a result. The Chinese government especially had to do something. Even if extreme.

They made Cheng I Sao an offer she could not refuse. She and her pirates would be given general amnesty. They would also be permitted to keep all the loot pirated.

Cheng I Sao was no fool. She accepted.

Cheng I Sao retired. Bought herself a brothel/casino. She was the madam.

She remarried. Gave birth to several children. Died of old age at 69. Not from a gallow as most pirates.

There are two reasons attributed for her success.

The first her cunning and ruthlessness fired by her desire to be the most feared pirate in history.

The second had to do with sex.

Cheng I Sao prepared a written set of laws to be followed by she and her pirates. Known as the Code. It covered the obligations and responsibilities of her to the pirates and vice versa. Distribution of booty and the treatment of captured women were included.

Cheng I Sao was a feminist. Probably the world’s first. Captive women not sold were either married or partnered with one of the pirates. A pirate could only have sex with his wife or partner. If otherwise, the pirate lost his head.


If a pirate had consensual sex with a captive, he was beheaded. The woman was not to be denied. She had cannonballs attached to her ankles and was thrown overboard.

Sensual deprivation was part and parcel of Cheng I Sao’s plan. She believed that sexual frustration made her men better fighters. Eager to take out their aggressions on the enemy. The harder they fought, the more successful she and they would be.

She appears to have been correct.

For various other offenses, the wrongdoer was flogged, quartered or had his ears chopped off.

In modern day, we have seen movies involving Blackbeard, William Kidd, Sir Henry Morgan, Anne Bonny, Mary Reed, Rachel Wall, and others. Never  Cheng I Sao. With one exception.

The film the popular Disney movie franchise Pirates of the Caribbean. Cheng I Sao is portrayed as the powerful pirate Mistress Ching, one of the nine Pirate Lords.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *