China’s Pirate Queen: Zheng Yi Sao/Shi Yang.

The story of the most successful pirate of all time.

Niall Leah
6 min readOct 16, 2022


Alex Tooth

One of the most feared pirates of all time was missing a few clichés details No wooden leg, parrot, or even a long dark beard. She was, in fact, unable to grow one.

She went by a few different names. Her most famous one is Zheng Yi Sao, but she was born Shi Yang.

Born to humble origins, this woman would forge a career as the most feared pirate of the south China sea and potentially the most successful pirate in the world. She started right at the bottom.

This is an incredible real rags-to-riches story.

Her known story began in a floating brothel in modern-day Guang Dong.

As a young woman, she worked as a prostitute in Canton, now known as Guang Dong. Little is known of her very early life, but legend has it she was a shrewd businesswoman. During this time, she is said to have traded secrets she gained from her work for influence and wealth amongst her political contacts.

She married a pirate captain called Zheng Yi. It is even believed that Zheng Yi sought her based on her reputation for savvy and resourcefulness.

Zheng Yi was the captain of the feared Red Flag fleet. He started as a privateer paid by Vietnam to harass Qing Dynasty China. Later, he led the former privateers into a life of straight-up piracy.

It was usual for pirates to live with their wives and families on board the ship, and Shi Yang was fully involved in aiding her husband in acts of piracy, but she did much more than that. She helped her husband build connections, forge alliances, and manage the logistics of the operation.

She ensured the looting and stealing remained a well-managed affair.

She helped her husband weave together disparate pirate organizations into an influential collective of outlaws known as the Confederacy. Zheng Yi emerged as the head of the powerful new organization with Shi Yang at his side.

This is how she came to be widely known as Zheng Yi Sao. It literally means the wife of Zheng Yi. Although her better-known name emphasizes her connection with…



Niall Leah

An ex-pat from the UK living in Chengdu, China. I satisfy my endless curiosity about the incredible journey of humanity by reading, traveling, and writing.