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Chinese women in history - soldiers, pirates, scholars, sages and rulers

Shi Xianggu (Zheng Yi Sao) - pirate admiral

Shi Xianggu (1775-1844) was a member of the danjia (boat-dwelling) people of Guangdong (Canton) Province. During the late Ming era, four prominent danjia clans - Shi, Ma, Zheng and Xu - dominated the piracy trade at the mouth of Pearl River.1 In 1801, Shi Xianggu of the Shi clan married Zheng Yi of the Zheng clan. Zheng was the leader of the Red Flag pirate fleet, and Shi became known as Zheng Yi Sao (literally "wife of older brother Zheng Yi").2 The couple went to Annam (present day Vietnam) to fight in the Tay Son rebellion.3 After returning to Guangdong, China, they conducted joint operations with another pirate Wu Shi'er, rapidly extending their scope of influence and eventually establishing the Cantonese Pirate Coalition. Prior to forming the coalition, the Zhengs already had 200 ships under their command. The size of their fleet expanded to 600 ships after the coalition was established.4

Zheng Yi died in 1807, after which Xianggu shared leadership of the fleet with Zheng Yi's deputy Zhang Bao. Zhang Bao, also known as Zhang Baozai ("Zhang Bao the Kid"), was then only 21.5 He was a fisherman's son. The Zhengs kidnapped Zhang when he was 15. He proved himself a brave fighter and intelligent leader and was soon adopted by the Zhengs as their foster son.6 Zhang was believed to have been Zheng Yi's boy favorite as well as Shi Xianggu's lover (and later husband). Contemporary records held that Zheng Yi Sao was officially the commander and Zhang Bao, being her subordinate, had to seek her approval for administering any rewards and punishments to the crew.7

Xianggu and Zhang Baozai took the Red Flag Fleet to unprecedented levels of power and organization.8 By 1809, there were 70,000 pirates under their command. The level of armament of Zheng Yi Sao's pirate fleet was thrice that of the English fleet and Spanish armada combined at the 1588 battle between England and Spain.9 Shi Xianggu was effectively mistress of the high seas, repeatedly defeating the Qing, Portuguese and British ships sent to stop the pirates. Both the civil and military arms of the Guangdong government were powerless against her.10

But infighting among the pirates proved a greater threat to Shi Xianggu's strength than external enemies. The leader of the Black Flag Gang, another major pirate faction, proposed to marry Zheng Yi Sao. Her refusal caused divisions among the pirates. The Qing government took the chance to negotiate the surrender of the Black Flag Gang, a move that eroded Zheng Yi Sao's power base. Forced into a corner, the Red Flag Gang began considering accepting amnesty from the government.11

Although the Qing Government's conditions for amnesty were quite generous, there was one condition that the Red Flag Gang objected to - kneeling before government representatives. The Red Flag pirates despised the Qing troops whom they had defeated in the past. Peace talks broke down.11

At this point, Shi Xianggu decided to personally visit Guangzhou for direct negotiations with the Commander-in-Chief of Guangdong and Guangxi Provinces. In 1809, against the opposition of her folowers, she led a delegation of 17 women and children to see the Commander-in-Chief Bai Ling. During the talks, she ignored all of Bai Ling's suggestions until the Commander-in-Chief acceded to her request to keep part of her fleet of ships for "trade", not for battle. But the pirate leader's diplomacy allowed for compromise. Zheng accepted the military officer's suggestion that the Emperor would "bestow marriage" upon Zhang Baozai and Zheng Yi Sao; when the couple bowed in thanks for the imperial favor, that gesture would count doubly as fulfilling the protocol of kneeling in acceptance of amnesty. After the amnesty, Zhang Baozai was given a military post and Zheng Yi Sao was given the title of Lady by imperial decree.11

30 years later, the Opium War broke out. Zheng Yi Sao, now in her 60s, threw herself into the war effort, helping Lin Zexu with his battle plans against the British.11 Shi Xianggu is said to far surpass her two very capable husbands in fame, bravery, strategy and spirit. Her exploits became the subject of a Hong Kong TV serial.11


  1. Zheng Yi Sao on Baidu Encyclopedia (Chinese article)
  2. A History of the Arrival of Christianity to China: 1807-1842 (Chinese article)
  3. Pirates in Qing history
  4. Pirates in Qing history
  5. Fei Yuan Qing Chang (Chinese article)
  6. A History of the Arrival of Christianity to China: 1807-1842 (Chinese article)
  7. Pirates in Qing history
  8. Pirates in Qing history
  9. A History of the Arrival of Christianity to China: 1807-1842 (Chinese article)
  10. A History of the Arrival of Christianity to China: 1807-1842 (Chinese article)
  11. Zheng Yi Sao on Baidu Encyclopedia (Chinese article)