Pirates 10: Zheng Yi Sao & 20th c. Chinese Piracy

Ellie Brigida: Welcome to Sweetbitter, where we explore the untold history of women and queer pirates. We’re your hosts, Ellie Brigida…

Leesa Charlotte: …and Leesa Charlotte.

EB: This episode, we’ll be talking about Ching Shih and 20th century Chinese piracy.

LC: But before we get into that, let’s welcome our resident pirate expert, Alyse, for a quick game of Fact or Fiction.

Alyse Knorr: Hi, y’all.

EB: Hi, Alyse.

AK: Hey, friends.

EB: I’m excited. Last week’s Fact or Fiction got real intense. I was like, we talked for like 20 minutes about Fact or Fiction, so…

LC: Oh my goodness. I’m so jealous! I missed you guys.

EB: I know.

LC: Did you win last week’s Fact or Fiction, Ellie?

EB: I think I did, didn’t I?

LC: So last week’s Fact or Fiction was if pirates had duels, and I am dying to know, because I have not yet listened to that episode. Do pirates have duels? Duels? I feel like my accent really fucks people up on that word.

EB: Oh, I literally was like, what’s a jewel? What do you mean jewel?

LC: See, this is why we need to recap it, because we didn’t have my accent saying “duel.”

EB: Okay, yes, duels. I actually did crush this one. I do remember that. And it was because of Hamilton that I got it correct.

LC: Oh, what? But Hamilton’s not a pirate.

EB: Yeah, but the duels that they do in Hamilton are very similar to the type of duels that pirates do.

AK: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.

EB: Yeah. Crazy. But yes, I remember it now. And I did great. So let’s do this week’s. I’m ready.

LC: Okay, okay.

AK: So, in the movies, pirate ships are enormous. They’re like the biggest kind of ship. Is that fact or fiction? Were pirate ships enormous?

LC: I feel like fiction. I don’t think it’s true. It doesn’t make sense to me, because it would be easier to take a small ship. Or it’s like, sometimes, but I wouldn’t say it’s the norm-norm, you know? That’s my answer.

EB: All right. I have to argue fact, but I do also think it’s fiction. Let me add one more thing to it, which when we talk in this episode, we’ll I think talk a bit more about–which is like that pirates had a huge, or some pirates, had really large fleets, like multiple ships. But those ships were probably smaller.

LC: Ellie, gosh, you’re good at this game. I feel like you’re right. You’re too good. We need to, like, sub you out.

EB: I did the interviews, though. I did the interviews for this episode, so I’m sorry, I know too much. But let me argue fact, just for fun. Okay, it’s that, even though they were in fleets, the main ship was huge, right? So they’d have all these like small boats behind them, but their main ship was gigantic. And that was because they were trying to intimidate their enemies, as they always wanted to, right? Like, if you see this huge ship with these, like intense masts coming towards you, you’re just gonna surrender. Even if there was like two people on that huge ship, you have no clue how many people are on it.

LC: The Trojan horse of pirate ships.

EB: Yeah, exactly. So I think it was like an intimidation tactic, for fact. That’s my fact defense.

LC: Amazing.

EB: What is it, Alyse?

LC: Alyse, put us out of our misery.

AK: I guess it’s technically Leesa who said fiction, is right.

LC: Technically.

AK: Yeah, but you both got it right. So yeah, the pirate ships can come in any size. It’s just dependent on what kind of ship they had captured. So if they captured a slave ship, which were the biggest out there, because they’d fit so many human beings on them, which is fucked up, they would have a really huge ship. But for the most part, they needed ships that were small and could go really fast to capture the big merchant ships. And so, smaller ships were faster and especially in the Chinese piracy that we’re going to be talking about today, they were, like Ellie said, vast, vast, vast fleets of thousands of small ships.

LC: Fast and furious, would you say? Sorry, I had to. I really had to.

EB: Yes, vast and fast.

LC: Mast and furious. Is that what you just said, Ellie? Did you say that, or did I hear you say that?

EB: No, you heard that incorrectly, but that’s honestly hilarious. So yes, I did say it. Great show.

LC: Ellie, you’re hilarious. Does that mean we can cover Fast and Furious for a bonus episode of Patreon, please? Please.

EB: Yes, because really–I mean to be fair, it is about land pirates.

LC: It is about pirates, kind of. Land pirates.

EB: It definitely is.

LC: We can do Fast and Furious 2, where they end up on a boat, and that’s enough of a connection for me.

EB: Sounds good.

LC: Because they do. In the second one, they like jump off the side, because it’s very realistic. They jump onto a boat.

AK: There you go.

LC: In the river.

AK: Oh.

LC: Fast and Furious 2 has to be one of my favorite scenes in Fast and Furious, which is the scramble scene. I know no one asked for this information, but I’m gonna share it, because I love Fast and Furious.

AK: Which is the one where there are literally cars coming out of an airplane, and like falling to earth.

LC: Oh like when they–at the beginning jump out the plane, or when there’s a plane like on the tarmac trying to take off for like an hour.

AK: No, no, no. The one where they’re jumping out of a plane in the air.

LC: I’m pretty sure that’s Fast and Furious 7, but I could be wrong.

AK: Jesus Christ. Yeah, 7, they’re like, “We really need to think of some new shit, because cars are getting, you know…”

LC: Well, in the most recent one they go to space, which everyone–people were like, “I can’t believe it.” I was like, this is exactly what I’m looking for in this film franchise. In space? That’s amazing. I love that. Where else do you get that? It’s so good.

AK: That’s outrageous.

LC: Anyway, so Mast and Furious, if only we did clever, like, podcast titles instead of our very literal ones, that would be the title of this episode.

EB: That would be it.

LC: But I just feel like this is a missed opportunity. We need a series of movies called Mast and Furious, about gay pirates, chasing ships, really fun.

AK: You know this would be a porn, right?

LC: Oh my god. Even better.

AK: Like especially with the punny title, make it like–

LC: Why did you have to go to porn, Alyse? It doesn’t have to be porn. It could be a very great film franchise that goes for many seasons and has The Rock and Vin Diesel and maybe not–maybe the women equivalents of them. It would be great. It would be great.

AK: I’m up for whatever.

EB: I think we should just cast Keira Knightley, but she’s not, you know–like she’s completely different from her character in Pirates of the Caribbean. She’s like just super gay.

LC: Yes. Who would be our cast members for that?

EB: I mean…

LC: I just feel like you get the Yellowjackets cast, and then put them into this.

EB: Put them on a boat, yeah, I’m here for that.

LC: Yeah. I really want to watch Yellowjackets, like I’m too scared. And I keep like looking at the cast and I’m like, “I want to watch this so bad, but I’m gonna have nightmares.”

EB: Oh, I did have nightmares. I had nightmares.

AK: I want to watch it, but like who has a Showtime subscription? Like, Jesus, I have every subscription except–

EB: Well, The L Word is on Showtime, Alyse.

LC: Showtime has all the gay stuff, yeah.

EB: The L Word and Generation Q.

AK: No, I hate Generation Q. I hate it.

LC: Showtime actually has amazing content. But like, honestly, every show I’ve watched on Showtime has been amazing. Like I’ve just been watching House of Lies–incredible. How to Become a God in Central Florida with Kirsten Dunst? So good. One of the best like limited series. Showtime is great. My ex has cable so–and like they’re very, like, okay with me using it for the rest of time, so…

AK: That’s really nice, shout out. We just started Dickinson on Apple TV, which as like an actual poetry scholar, I can tell you it’s so good and historically accurate and sexy. It’s not nearly as gay as Dickinson was, but it’s just so much fun.

EB: But also, Alyse, you just started it.

AK: We’re almost through the end of season one.

EB: Okay, well–

AK: Does it get gayer? ‘Cause I heard season one was the gayest.

LC: Alyse has a child. We need to let up on Alyse.

EB: No, no, no. I’m saying about the gayness, ’cause I just finished season–

LC: Ohhh, it gets gayer.

EB: –I just finished season two. But to be fair, season two is like not gay until it is. Like the last episode is so gay.

AK: Oh, good to know. But is season three gonna be gay?

EB: I hope so, because season two ended very gay. And so I think season three is like really leaning into it.

AK: I mean, the thing is, Sue was her lifelong lover and like life partner.

EB: Exactly.

AK: There were really no other suitors for Dickinson, period. But they have to like mix it up on the show, which I understand.

EB: I hate that they give Emily Dickinson any male suitors.

AK: I know. Yeah, it’s just isn’t realistic.

EB: I hate it.

AK: The death thing is really on point. Like she literally thought death was her boyfriend. So that’s fine. That’s fine. Yeah, yeah, yeah, she’s always riding around with death. But this fucking Friday Night Lights jock? Like, whatever. I don’t, you know, I don’t need him.

EB: No, and then she has another male love interest in season two, as well. Like, it’s too much, but–

AK: If it were historically accurate, I’d obviously be fine with it. It’s just like, that just isn’t really true to like her–you know, what we know at least of her experience. But the death boyfriend–on point, we can have a death boyfriend.

LC: As in, death is her boyfriend? Is that the point?

AK: Yes. Death, like death.

LC: Oh, yeah. She like, talks about death a lot.

AK: Oh, yeah. She talks about having sex with death. She talks about death taking her out for carriage rides.

EB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And death is a recurring character in Dickinson, like he comes back all the time.

LC: “Because I could not stop for death.”

AK: Yeah, exactly. That’s the first episode.

LC: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay.

AK: It’s so good, and death is like, a young, like a mini like Snoop Dogg kind of character. Yeah, it’s great. It’s great.

LC: Oh, what?

AK: Yeah.

LC: Is it actually Snoop Dogg?

EB: No.

AK: No, it’s just kind of like–that’s the vibe of him.

LC: But he’s in everything.

EB: Yeah, like he’s constantly like smoking a joint, and just like, relaxed.

LC: What? Okay, I need to watch Dickinson.

EB: Yeah.

AK: Yeah, it’s really good.

EB: All right. How are we gonna turn this back into the episode?

AK: Well, I can tell you one fun fact, which is that–I don’t know if y’all saw Captain Phillips with Tom Hanks. I watched this for my research–it’s really, you know, it’s really problematic but one of–so it’s about the true story of this freight cargo ship captain. This actually happened in 2009, that his ship was hijacked by Somali pirates. And it does do a really good job of showing the small boat, big boat thing, because he’s on this enormous cargo ship that’s carrying like, you know, thousands and thousands of pounds of stuff. And they’re on a, like, two-person speed boat. And that’s all they need to take this whole ship, right? So I do think it does a pretty good job of showing that element of piracy.

EB: Nice. Yep. All you need is a small, fast ship and some weapons and intimidation. And there you go, you’re gonna have the biggest fleet.

LC: And that’s what we learned from Fast and Furious.

EB: Way to bring it back, way to bring it back.

LC: Yeah, I brought it back. I couldn’t help myself.

EB: Yes.

AK: Just to bring it full circle.

LC: You’re like, I want to bring it back to pirates. And I’m like, I want to bring it back to Fast and Furious. Ok, Alyse, thank you so much. We are going to have a break and collect ourselves. And we’re back. As we said at the top of the episode, today we’re discussing Chinese women pirates and Chinese pirate sexuality in the 19th and 20th century.

EB: We’ll hear a bit from lawyer and pirate expert Laura Duncombe, and a bit from historian and pirate expert, Jamie Goodall on this episode. Unfortunately, we were unable to get a Chinese pirate expert to join us. So Alyse is going to join us for the full episode to share some of the research she’s done.

LC: The first pirate we’ll be talking about is Zheng Yi Sao, an early 19th century pirate who historians consider the most successful pirate of all time. Here’s Laura.

Laura Duncombe: She is, by any conceivable metric, the greatest pirate of all time, male or female. You know, Blackbeard at the height of his power maybe had like a dozen ships and he was active for a couple years.Zheng Yi Sao, at the height of her game, had 1,200 ships and 40 to 60,000 pirates under her command, which is larger than most of the legitimate navies of her time. She made more money, she was active for longer, she came out on top and wasn’t caught or captured. There is no comparison to any pirates that ever lived to Zheng Yi Sao, and it is absolutely mind-boggling to me that she is not like a cereal box, you know, recognizable figure. I feel like every child in the world, you know–if you know who Captain Hook is and if you know who Blackbeard is, like you should know who Zheng Yi Sao is. And it is just a crying shame to me that she is not shouted from the rooftops and little girls dress up like her every year on Halloween, because she is just incredible. So she started out life working in a brothel in modern-day Canton China, and then she marries this small-time pirate, Zheng Yi. So Zheng Yi Sao is not her name. We don’t know what her name is. Zheng Yi Sao just means wife of Zheng Yi. There are many different spellings of this name, because there’s two different English-ization, Romanization, of Chinese characters. However you call it, we just don’t know her name. It is lost to time. But–so she marries Zheng Yi, and they spend their honeymoon fighting as mercenaries in the Tây Sơn rebellion, which is, you know, sort of modern-day Vietnam. And they learn over there, even though the side that they’re fighting for is ultimately unsuccessful, that one ship is pretty great, but two ships is twice as powerful. And if you’ve got five ships, well, heck, you’re, you know, you’re in business. So they bring home the lessons that they learned fighting in the Tây Sơn rebellion to China, with this idea to start a pirate confederacy. They just want to work together, and they’re building this up with some success. When Zheng Yi dies in 1807, he–we don’t know exactly how he died, he may have been swept overboard. He may have died in battle, but he’s out of the picture. And so this fledgling fleet, sort of like on the brink of becoming huge, is suddenly leaderless. And so Zheng Yi Sao decides, well, she’s gonna take the reins. It wasn’t entirely unheard of for a woman to take over after her husband died in Chinese culture, particularly in Chinese, you know, sort of maritime culture, a lot of fishing boats were run with both families. And you know, in the lower classes, there was a lot less like ladies sitting at home being pretty and men out doing work things, because they just simply couldn’t afford it. So you know, entire families would sail on fishing boats together. But it was unprecedented, just sort of the scope and the scale of this project that she took over.

LC: So hold on just quickly, Alyse. I thought that we were talking about Ching Shih today. Is Zheng Yi Sao Ching Shih, or is it–sorry for my terrible pronunciation, but is it the same person? Or are they different people?

AK: Yeah, they’re the same person. She goes by two different names, but essentially we don’t know her real name, just like Laura says. Her name means “the wife of Zheng Yi.” But yeah, you can call it either one: Ching Shih or Zheng Yi Sao.

LC: Oh, amazing. Okay, thank you for clarifying.

AK: Yeah. I mean, in addition to what Laura just mentioned, we also read some research by Diane Murray online. She’s a historian of Chinese piracy. And she writes about how women in China at this time had very little access to official power or like positions at state institutions.

LC: So unusual for us women.

EB: Never heard about.

AK: I know, right. So, so much has changed. They couldn’t work for the government, which were really the best jobs you could get, and Confucian ideals at the time, you know, really dictated that women be submissive and docile and stay at home. So she’s really unusual for that reason. When she married Zheng Yi, he was one of like, a dozen pirates vying for power on this big fleet. And she helped him rise to power. Like she was a political mastermind. And you know, he was kind of like the unifier and the like, boss guy, but she was the organizer behind the scenes.

EB: Yeah, I mean, when I talked to Laura, too, because we also see that like, after he died, she took over, it was like, that stupid saying, or whatever. “Behind every great man is a woman, blah blah blah,” is like, literally, he was a figurehead. Like, I feel like, where it’s like she was the mind.

AK: Yeah, totally.

EB: She was the person who organized everything, and was like, “Alright, do what I say.” And he’s like, “Okay, cool, I’ll do it.” You know, like, that’s what it feels like.

AK: Totally.

LC: Like, the man is the head of the house, but the woman is the neck, and she turns it every way she wants.

EB: Exactly. Exactly.

LC: Like he’s like, theoretically there, but she’s like, “Do this, do that.”

EB: Yeah, she’s like the puppet master, and I do think that’s why like, I mean, speculating, but even after he died, that she just like rose into power, because everyone probably was like, “Okay, yeah, she’s been doing everything this whole time.”

LC: Do you lowkey just think that’s why we live longer?

EB: Yeah, we’re just like puppeteering someone else. And then we’re like, “Alright, I guess I’ll do it myself.”

LC: At the end, yeah.

AK: What she did after her husband died is even more interesting and scandalous. So I’m going to let Laura explain that. And then you’ll hear from Jamie Goodall, who we just want to note, she is a military historian, but nothing she says here represents the views of the US government. But here’s Laura.

LD: She appointed their adopted son, Zhang Bao, to the head of the red flag fleet. So all of her fleets were organized by colors–the green flag fleet, the red flag fleet, and that is the the hardest part of any discussion about Zheng Yi Saoi was getting out the words red flag fleet. So her largest fleet is the red flag, and she puts Zhang Bao in charge. Lineage at this point is very important in China, so they don’t have any, you know, blood heirs. So he’s sort of their adopted son, and then she marries him also. So she’s got complete loyalty on him seven ways to Sunday. And so he is going to do whatever she says. Then she writes this code. It’s not unusual for pirate ships to have a code of conduct. You know, many pirate ships, particularly during the Golden Age, and like the buccaneer era, had contracts that you signed, that said, you know, this is what we’re going after, this is how long we’re gonna be out, and this is the share of treasure that I agree to. But this code was notable for its sort of like absolute harshness. Most offenses were punishable by death. Notably, rape of female captives was punishable by death. If you found a female captive that you liked, you could marry her with permission of Zheng Yi Sao. But if you were unfaithful to her, then you would be punished by death. So she knew to control 40 to 60,000 people, she was going to have to inspire absolute obedience to keep everybody in order. And so this code accomplished that, and she just grew her empire and just got bigger and bigger and was more and more successful until she became the best pirate of all time.

Jamie Goodall: To be a woman and to oversee that many pirates, she had a lot of rules that, like, men had to treat women with respect. They couldn’t just bring sex workers on board and treat them poorly. You know, she had a lot of rules regarding treatment of women, which I thought was very fascinating.

LC: That’s some Sweeney Todd shit right there. Like, oh my word. I’m just grooming them to be my frickin’ partner.

EB: Yes.

LC: How old was he when he was adopted? Because if he was adopted as an adult, like sure. But if she raised him like, I don’t know, it’s just really icky. It makes me feel ugh. Though I am with her on the whole killing people who mistreat sex workers. Maybe we should bring that back, I don’t know. Feels right. I’m not for the death penalty. It’s a joke. I feel like I did very blatantly say that. But I like the, you know, the vibe of it. 

AK: Oh yeah. Because right–we know that pirates love codes, they all have codes. But under her code, it was really strict. Like there were punishments for desertion, pilfering, absence, or, you know, sexual offenses against female captives, and the penalty for rape was death. So you could marry one of the like, captives you could–which is sketchy. You could marry one of your captives, but then you had to remain faithful to her. You couldn’t fool around on her or Zheng Yi Sao was gonna come for you.

LC: I love that.

AK: So here’s Laura talking a little bit more about just how good at her job Zheng Yi Sao actually was.

LD: Zheng Yi Sao was so good at her job that some people thought that she had supernatural abilities. And, you know, I tend not to ascribe much to those theories, but there was a point when she was under siege for about a week and China thought, finally, they we’re going to get her. And they had blockaded her ships in this small, narrow bay, and trapped, you know, not her entire 12,000 ships, but the ships that she was on and the fleet that she was currently sailing with had been blockaded in the bay. And people were coming from all over China to see the end of Zheng Yi Sao, because surely, there was no way she could escape this. I mean, I’m just imagining people like setting up lawn chairs, like in like, you know, a NASCAR style, like just like, oh man, she’s totally gonna get it. For their piece de resistance, after you know, sort of blockading them for a week, they sent two fire ships sailing towards her. So a fire ship, if you’re not familiar, is exactly what it sounds like. You take a wooden ship and you set it on fire, and you sail it towards someone. And you know, because ships don’t have at this time period, don’t have motors, they don’t have, you know, they’re at the mercy of the winds. You can’t really move quickly to escape, particularly, you know, the sailing ships that don’t have oars. So they’re just–you’re a sitting duck for these fire ships. Then, suddenly, the wind changes and they turn around and come right back towards the Chinese fleet, which immediately scatters in the panic as much as they can, as fast as they can, people trying to get on the way of these burning ships. And in the resulting confusion, Zheng Yi Sao and her fleet slips out, unharmed, completely unscathed after a week of siege and attempted death by fire. So, I just love that. I just–you can’t not admire a lady with that kind of hutzpah, I guess. That skill, that ability to be cool in a crisis, and also maybe some supernatural guidance.

EB: I am absolutely obsessed with this, like that they’re like, “Alright.” The only time where she was even like, close to being captured, it was like, “No, actually even the wind’s on my side.” Like, everything just like kept going in her favor. And I also like the idea that like, maybe she was a witch.

LC: I hope so.

AK: We don’t know.

EB: Who knows? Maybe she was like casting some magic spells on that. You know, we don’t know.

LC: Oh my god. That’s the character in Mast and the Furious. Ching Shih, the witch! Like, who controls the winds? Oh, my goodness. That just added a whole other element. Someone make this television show! 

AK: Yeah, she’s like part Storm from X-Men.

EB: Yes. I mean, like people did really think she was supernatural. She was such a good pirate. I mean, it’s the same thing of like women, right? Like the only way she could be that good of a pirate is if, like, she was a witch, right? That is what people are saying, right? It’s bullshit.

AK: Okay, but the winds thing is crazy. Like, you can’t just be so good at piracy that you control the wind. That is pretty, pretty wild.

EB: It’s pretty wild. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

AK: That’s pretty “sus,” as my students would say. It’s pretty sus.

EB: Yeah, there’s literally fire coming towards her. And she’s like, “Uh, no, how about back towards you?” Like she like Uno reversed the fire. Like, what’s happening? I mean, when I was in this interview, though, with Laura like, it is–to your point, Leesa, it is crazy that there’s not more in our media about Zheng Yi Sao like, because she literally was the best pirate of all time. And yet, we barely hear about her. That like it’s not like, oh, like she’s like hiding in this remote corner of the world. She was the best pirate of all time. And like, and people are like, “Eh, but she’s not a man.” That’s insane.

AK: Yeah, where’s the Hollywood movie?

LC: People are like let’s make another Star Wars movie. Yeah, no shade. I love Star Wars. But like, yo, there are so many like, in real life, interesting stories you could tell, let alone the other things we could come up with in our minds without like remaking movies, without rehashing old franchises like–someone do this.

EB: I would die for this series.

LC: You would die for this?

EB: I would.

LC: So intense, I love it.

AK: Play your life app. Let me just tell you a little bit more about just like, what made her so great, so that any Hollywood filmmakers listening out there can get their facts together.

LC: Hire us as your researchers. Thank you.

AK: Yes, yes. Here’s my research. She was a genius military leader. So at the peak of her powers, you have to understand that her pirate confederation was twice as large as the entire Spanish Armada.

LC: Wow.

AK: So she was just out there dominating the Chinese navy, to the point that, because no one could fight her at sea, her pirates just got bored and started raiding villages and markets on land. And then they got so good that they didn’t have to raid anything. They would just extort merchant chips for quote unquote “safe conduct certificates,” which is like when someone comes up to your car, and it’s like, at a parking lot and is like, “I’ll watch your car tonight.” And you’re like, “Oh, I’m paying you not to break into my car. That’s cool. Yep.” so they shared all the loot and riches amongst each other. She was a super shrewd businesswoman, and everything that anyone did had to be cleared with her. So she was really–she had like a tight control on everything. She kept extensive records of the booty. And just everyone just obeyed her. 

LC: Extensive records of the booty. There’s your porno.

AK: Okay, so as far as the witchy thing, here’s something really sneaky she would do. She would manipulate the pirates’ on her ships religious beliefs. So they asked the gods for good omens before they would do anything piratey, like take any risks or anything. So what she did is on one of her ships, she built this huge temple and hired all these priests. And then she’d fucking tell the priests what to say.

EB: Incredible.

LC: Wait, so she’s fully a cult leader, fully a cult leader.

EB: So okay, so they’re like, “Tell us we’re gonna be successful in this thing.” And she’s like, “Tell them they’re gonna be successful.” That’s what’s happening?

AK: Yeah, totally, totally. Yeah, I know.

EB: Oh my god.

AK: She’s so smart. She’s so smart.

EB: Like probably one of the most manipulative women in the history of the world, and the most successful.

LC: We love that. We can all take lessons from her. Let’s go.

EB: Oh my god.

LC: Be more manipulative? Takes notes.

EB: Yeah, oh my god. Be a puppet master.

AK: Yeah, I mean, she wasn’t just like, ruling by brute force or something. She was just really smart and like savvy and sneaky and I just love it.

EB: It’s crazy.

LC: So good.

AK: So here’s Laura about, you know, what happened to her in the end, which is also awesome.

LD: Probably the best thing about Zheng Yi Sao is she was completely uncatchable, like I’m trying to think of a word. Like indomitable doesn’t quite do it. But just like, you know, naval captains would commit suicide rather than be captured by her, like everyone’s terrified by her. The Chinese navy threw everything they had at her, and they did the thing that they hated to do, which was appeal to foreign powers for help. They appealed to Portugal and then to England. Nobody could stop her, nobody on earth could stop her. So she decides there’s some dissension between the head of red flag and the head of green flag, and she knows, you know, nothing lasts forever, and particularly not a pirate empire. So I’m going to get out while the going’s good. So she negotiates a surrender with the Chinese government. We actually have her surrender document. And it is kind of hysterical, because it is this very flowery, ornate language, you know, about how, you know, this humble servant of China, who has like seen the error of her ways, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, all the while knowing she is holding all of the cards. She has completely she could ask for the moon and they would have to give it to her because they can’t stop her any other way. So exactly what she asked for is what she gets, which is a pardon for all but like 100 of her pirates, like almost all of them are pardoned. Her husband is given a job in the Chinese navy, like a plum posting the Chinese navy, she is allowed to keep all of her money, a small fleet of ships, and best of all, there is a fund by the Chinese government put together to sort of help some of her pirates transition to civilian law-abiding life after this life of crime. So not only does she retire, she retires on the government’s dime, which is something that no pirate before or since was ever able to negotiate anything remotely like that, you know, Woods Rodgers was handing out pardons sort of like pirate to pirate in the 1710s, 1720s. But no one ever single-handedly negotiated the surrender and compensation of, you know, thousands and thousands of pirates. So I mean, they just don’t make ’em like Zheng Yi Sao anymore.

LC: This is such a white dude story, you know, like, it’s a life of crime. And then you’re just like, “Hey, friends in power, give me a cushy government job, and I’ll ride out my years.”

EB: Yep. And yet Zheng Yi Sao did that for herself.

LC: I know, we love to see it.

AK: And most of her pirates.

EB: And this was a long, long time ago. Yeah, like, and to be fair, we said at the beginning, she had 40 to 60,000 pirates at one time. Right?

AK: She got them all jobs.

EB: So like, she took care of a lot, a lot of people, and the government was like, “You know what? We’d rather pay you then have you terrorize us.” That’s literally what happened. Insane.

AK: It’s the happiest ending of any pirate story, right? Because most of them in the Golden Age in the Caribbean were being just hanged, like, you know, you knew you were going to be hanged within like a few years of starting your job as a pirate. But if you go work for the woman, you’re gonna retire on the government’s side and just live out the rest of your life gloriously a rich person.

EB: Yeah, yeah. And like, no other pirates have a retirement plan, right?

LC: I love it.

EB: Like, that’s insane. They literally got a pension from the freaking government, because she was like, she negotiated for them. I also do appreciate that about her. And I’m sure her pirates underneath her did, because she also could have just negotiated her own.

LC: And then fuck all these dudes.

EB: Like she could have just said, like, “Oh, just me gets whatever I want.”

AK: Right, right.

EB: And leave all her pirates, but like, she took care of them.

AK: Basically her society is this utopia, like in America in the 21st century, we don’t punish rapists. And we don’t have, at most jobs, retirement and we don’t have maternity leave. And she had all these things in her society.

LC: Oh my god. Be right back, getting a time machine. Let’s go.

AK: Priests that tell you only what you want to hear like, I want to live on her ship. Literally. I want to live on her ship.

EB: Yeah, I mean, it. It makes sense why so many pirates wanted to work for her. I mean, I don’t think they knew that she was going to get them a retirement fund, right. But clearly, they could tell that she would take care of them in whatever way she could.

LC: It makes me think of–and this is in my mind, because I rewatched it the other day, and I know you’ve watched it, Ellie, because we watched it together–is 9 to 5, and how like, they put in all these things in place for their staff at the end. And then all of the workers’ productivity goes up by like 20% in like a few weeks, because everybody’s just taken care of.

AK: Imagine that.

LC: Well, that’s the thing that drives me crazy about corporate world America, because it’s like–or just around the world, is like, it’s really proven that if you just give people good quality of life and a decent salary, that they actually will be way more productive and loyal.

EB: And help your business. Like if you actually care about your business growing and being better, what? Like it’s very confusing. Yes.

LC: And yet people insist on trying to cut costs and stuff and it’s like, you’re not cutting costs, you’re just making everything worse for everybody. Like it just makes no sense at all. It’s such a short-term thing. And it’s like been over and over again proven to be wrong. And yet still people insist on being fuckwits.

AK: I’m starting to think that instead of making Mast and the Furious, we should write like a business advice book that just uses–

EB: Yeah, Business According to Zheng Yi Sao.

LC: That’s like Be More Pirate.

AK: The title of the book would be This Literal Pirate Treated Her Workers Better Than You Are.

LC: Oh my god.

EB: That’s horrifying, because it’s true.

AK: We should do consulting work. We should just go into businesses and be like–

LC: There’s a company that does that!

EB: Yeah.

LC: We interviewed one of the people from the company. It’s called Be More Pirate, but it’s more about like–it’s less about the work culture.

EB: Like the democratization of the workplace kind of, because that is a lot of what pirates were, like it was like everyone had a boat and all that kind of stuff.

LC: Yeah, the reason I loved it is because I always said this about terrorist organizations, because I study terrorism, but like, at the same time, I was like working in a startup. And I was like, “Oh, wow, I could learn so much from terrorists,” and like, people would just feel uncomfortable thinking about that. But like, it’s true. Like they’re really well organized groups, they’re really good at inspiring like loyalty, a lot of them have really good like, again, like pirates. A lot of them have really good health care programs and education programs, and they feed people and like do a lot of work on the ground that the governments aren’t doing. Like, you can’t just like look at–like terrorist tactics are bad, but terrorist organizations often do quite a lot of good in their communities. Same thing as pirates, right? So like, I think we should stop having such a view of like, pirates are bad, therefore there’s nothing to learn. Because obviously, there’s a lot we can learn from pirates.

EB: Especially, especially Zheng Yi Sao.

LC: Oh my gosh, yes.

EB: Like holy. I love–I just, I was so excited for this episode, because I interviewed Laura a long time ago. Like I interviewed Laura over the summer. And this part of that interview, like, got me fired up. I was like, holy shit, this woman’s amazing. So I’m so happy we’re finally getting to this episode, and everyone who’s listening can have the same reaction and hear more about her.

LC: She is in movies, right? There are movies where she’s a character? Is she in Pirates of the Caribbean?

EB: I’m looking this up. Okay, the only thing I can find is Don’t Cross the Dragon Lady: Zheng Yi Sao. Which is a podcast episode from Stuff You Missed in History Class. From 2011.

LC: Oh, there is a character in Pirates of Caribbean. She’s in At World’s End.

EB: Oh yeah. A Mistress Ching is in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. But like, not enough.

LC: Loosely based.

EB: Yeah, loosely based. Also like, not enough.

LC: Not enough.

EB: Zheng Yi Sao is Jack Sparrow. Zheng Yi Sao is not–Zheng Yi Sao is better than Jack Sparrow.

LC: Yeah, who the fuck is Jack Sparrow?

EB: Zheng Yi Sao is the protagonist, not a side character.

LC: Oh my god. Speaking of TV shows, though, because this has to be spoken about on the podcast and this is the most recent recording since then, there is going to be a new series about our friend. Taika Waititi is going to play Blackbeard in a new HBO series called Our Flag Means Death, which is a comedy based on the life of Stede Bonnet. So Stede Bonnet is, if you remember that guy who like got bored of his life and was like, I’m going to be a pirate and like hire people to be his pirate crew, there is going to be an HBO Max series about, like, based on his life. Obviously, it’s going to be a comedy, and Taika Waititi is going to play Blackbeard.

EB: Nice, nice.

LC: How fucking cool is that? So thank you to everybody who sent that to us. I am, like, so excited to see this TV series. We’ll definitely have to do an episode or something on it. It’s going to be amazing.

EB: And next, Zheng Yi Sao series. Give it to us!

LC: Yes. Not just–yes, sorry. We got off track.

EB: But still, still exciting, so it’s good.

LC: Any pirate series with Taika Waititi in it like, I’m here, I’m here for it. I love him. I’m excited to see him as Blackbeard. It’s gonna be amazing.

EB: Also, like what has he not done? Vampires, pirates.

LC: Anyway, we love Taika Waititi. But anyway, so Ching Shih next, Ching Shih next. We’ve got to do it. Okay, Alyse, I think you have more things to talk to us about, and we’re not a TV series podcast. But, let’s go.

EB: However…give us more details on Zheng Yi Sao before we finish, because–ugh, I just love her so much.

AK: Unfortunately, I’m all out of details on Zheng Yi Sao. But I have another badass Chinese pirate woman to tell you about.

LC: Yes.

AK: Before that, I’m just gonna give you two quick tidbits that I stumbled across in my research, which is that I read another article by Diane Murray about homosexuality on the Chinese pirate ships during Zheng Yi Sao’s time. And basically, one really big difference in Chinese piracy in the 19th century versus Caribbean Golden Age piracy is that pirates in the South Sea actually had women and children on their ships. The women worked just as hard as the men and they fought alongside their husbands during battles. Sometimes they even captained ships. So there were lots of women out there. There’s also lots of same-sex sexuality between male Chinese pirates.

LC: Woo!

AK: Yeah, so–sorry.

LC: I just–I felt like I had to do something.

EB: Yay for homosexuality. We love it.

LC: We have to cheer when we hear about it.

AK: Oh, yeah. It’s worth it. This British prisoner of some Chinese pirates named Jay Turner, in 1807, wrote that “the greater part of the crew are satisfied without women.” And he said the pirates were committing crimes against nature. So we all know what that means. And Diane Murray points out this really interesting thing, which is that because there were women and sex workers and wives on these Chinese pirate ships, they weren’t fucking other guys because it was the only option, as some people speculate about, you know, pirates in the Golden Age in the Caribbean. They were doing it because they loved it, because they wanted to, which is fabulous.

LC: Nice. Yes, love to see it.

AK: So in some ways, Chinese pirate ships were even gayer than–

LC: Yes. Come through.

AK: More feminist, more gay.

EB: I’m obsessed with this episode.

AK: Yeah. Yeah.

LC: We need to go and build a time machine. It’s going to be great.

EB: Oh, yes.

LC: Though it might smell a bit, but you know, we’ll sacrifice. Women can’t have it all, as we know.

EB: Unless you’re Ching Shih. 

AK: Yeah. Now what’s funny about this one last really badass female Chinese pirate name Cheng Chui Ping, otherwise known as Sister Ping, that’s what everyone called her, who operated only 20 or 40 years ago. She was big in the 90s.

LC: Wow.

AK: She was operating in the South China Sea. But she was based herself and her operations were based in New York City.

EB: Wow, that is crazy. New York City in the 90s. Just like having a pirate–Sister Ping. Like, let’s just add to the crime in New York City. How about a pirate?

AK: A lot of crime. Yeah, lots of crime.

LC: There’s a lot of water.

AK: From the 1970s to the 1990s, she ran an international human smuggling ring. Basically, she was smuggling thousands of Chinese immigrants to the United States and Europe. And she had this vast network of enforcers and minions. She kept this little like shop, just like a general store. That’s her front. But she was back there forging passports, forging driver’s licenses, forging green cards, employment authorization cards, social security cards for her clients. So you would show up and she didn’t just get you here. She got you here so you could stay.

LC: Okay, but not human trafficking. It was human smuggling.

AK: No, no, it was like people who wanted to come over, who wanted to, you know, join their families in the US and couldn’t.

LC: Honestly, dealing with the US immigration system–I don’t blame you all.

AK: Yes. She was basically like, openly practicing this illegal business. Everyone knew about it, even the cops knew about it, but she still eluded them for years and made more than $30 million.

LC: Wow. In the 90s, too. Where is she now? Is she still alive?

AK: Okay. So, before I tell you what happened to her, I have to tell you about–

LC: Sorry, jumping ahead, I’m just like, I need to know.

AK: It’s good. I mean, so like, in a lot of ways, like what she was doing really wasn’t cool, right? Because she could charge people whatever she wanted, and they would pay because they’re so desperate to get here. And like the immigration system, it’s all fucked up, right. And what she was doing was also really, really dangerous. Like she was often just putting people into cargo containers, and the conditions were really bad. And all of this came to a head with what’s called the Golden Venture disaster. And you can read all about Sister Ping and this disaster in Patrick Radden Keefe’s The Snakehead, which is what I read. Basically, there was this cargo ship that had for years been on its way with 286 Chinese immigrants. It sails from Thailand, it stopped in Kenya and just kind of had to hang out there for a while because they couldn’t figure out how to like get safely across the Atlantic. They crossed the Atlantic on a four month voyage. And then just as they were pulling into their secret unloading spot in Queens, it ran aground on the Rockaway Peninsula. This was on June 6th, 1993, at like two in the morning. And this is really bad, right? So like, these people have been on the ship starving and like living in their own shit and piss. And there were these enforcers on the ship who were just like, you know, like they had guns, they were threatening them. So once the ship runs aground, like all these people are panicking. They’re jumping off the ship. Ten people drowned trying to flee the ship, because they were worried they would get like, picked up by immigration, right? So all these people end up on the shore, like hundreds of Chinese people are there. Ten have drowned, and the government has no idea what to do with them. So they just put them into jail for years trying to figure it out. And it’s a really interesting time, because Democrats are like, we have to, you know, like, we have to welcome these people into our country. And Republicans also are kind of on board because they’re–the immigrants could say that they were fleeing because of the one-child policy, and Republicans are on board with that, because abortion, right. But then also, there’s like a lot of backlash. And so it was just like a lot happening politically. The detainees are just so bored in prison and trying to like ask for their rights that they start making origami, basically folk art, paper sculptures, they made more than 10,000 of these, you can see them online, they’re really beautiful. And, you know, these people are just rotting in jail, while each of them had paid like $40,000 to be transported to the US.

LC: I don’t know if this is such a big thing in the US. But in Australia, like, “boat people” as like the media calls them is like a massive, massive, like political hot button issue. And I think because we are like an island nation, it’s like, and because we’re right by Asia, there are so many of these people who are like exploiting situations. And obviously, the lines for immigration–like Australia maybe even has more Thai immigration policies than the US, like it’s really hard for people to come and seek asylum and all of that. We have really horrible like offshore detention and whatnot. And these voyages are so dangerous and like, honestly, like they do make up such a small percentage of the people who actually come and illegally stay in Australia. Like one of the worst groups for illegally saying in Australia is European backpackers who overstay their visas. But like, we never talk about them on the news. But “boat people,” as it is–and I’m sorry, I do not agree with that term. But like, just to talk about how Australia talks about this politically, they are definitely something that is like a big issue that is spoken about all the time in the news, like all the time in Australia, so I don’t know what it’s like here. And if that’s–I mean, you guys have a lot of land migration from like, south of the border. So I don’t know if it’s quite the same here. But definitely in Australia, it’s like a big thing.

AK: I think with this case, it was just so wild to people because, like, China’s so far away, like, you know, to get on a ship and come all the way it’s like–it’s  just wild. And it was so–yeah, it was so huge on the news. And I guess it was just because it’s happening all the time that people hadn’t like noticed it. Just because Sister Ping was so sneaky.

LC: Into New York as well. It feels like, from China, like if I’m thinking about where China is correctly, like it feels that the West Coast is smarter.

AK: Right? But they were coming–they wanted to live in Chinatown in New York. So she was specifically getting them there. Like they would have had family there or whatever.

EB: That is crazy. I mean, I do think about it, though. Like there definitely are–I think there’s a larger Asian population on the East Coast, because there’s like a Chinatown in Boston, too.

LC: I thought San Francisco was one of the first Chinatowns in the world.

EB: Maybe San Francisco, too, yeah, ’cause it is closer.

AK: They were bringing folks over to work on the railroad and then kicking them out again.

EB: Yeah. But there’s definitely like a pretty large Asian population on the East Coast as well. It makes sense to me, not necessarily distance-wise. But just like, that this was happening in the 90s.

AK: Well it meant you’d pay for her to like show up, but then for her to make you a passport and everything, like it was a one-stop shop. And she was based in New York. So that’s why people are coming to her.

EB: Yeah, like, I have friends that I went to high school with who were like, first generation American immigrants from China or Vietnam or like other Asian countries. So I’m, like, curious to see if like any of their families were like, a part of this. It’s so recent.

LC: Yes. I know. So recent. Absolutely not long ago at all. Yeah, I mean, that’s like the Amazon Prime of illegal smuggling immigration. Like she’s like, “Yo, I got everything for you. Give me all your money.”

EB: Yeah, one-stop shop. It’s so not quite black-and-white, obviously. Horrific conditions for people who are coming but like she also did help a lot of people come here and like, ideally, live a better life, we hope.

LC: It’s just wild.

EB: But that is–yeah, that is so crazy.

AK: So because of you know, this situation, she ended up being convicted in the US finally, and sentenced to 35 years in prison. She was due for release in 2030, but unfortunately, she died in prison in 2014.

LC: Oh, wow.

AK: So, RIP Sister Ping.

EB: Damn.

AK: One of the more recent pirates, another woman Chinese pirate who was wildly, wildly successful.

EB: I mean, we have learned so, so much in this episode. I also feel like you could do like an entire show just about Zheng Yi Sao, just about like Chinese piracy. And yet, like we don’t hear about it as often as I think we should. What an incredible episode. I’m just like–my mind is completely blown.

LC: Thank you so much Alyse, for joining us for the whole episode.

AK: Thanks for having me.

EB: I can’t wait for the next one. In the meantime, here’s a taste of what’s to come on Sweetbitter.

Carole Boston Weatherford: It’s something like one in four cowboys were African American, and you find a similar representation in the vocation of pirate.

David Cecelski: A very unique and important intellectual culture of slave resistance, of liberation, grew in the maritime districts of the South. If you were an African American man or woman in even a little southern sea port, you knew what was happening in Haiti, and you were getting the latest abolitionist literature.

AK: Thanks for listening to Sweetbitter. We’re back to our regular scheduling and our next episode will be released one week from now, on the 24th of February.

EB: If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe, rate, and review us. It really helps, especially written reviews on Apple podcasts. You can also support us on Patreon at patreon.com/sweetbitter. Sweetbitter is an independent production by me, Ellie Brigida, Alyse Knorr, and Leesa Charlotte, in partnership with Three Springs Media. Our audio engineering is by Sara Gabrielli. Our production assistant is Thea Smith and our artwork is by Istela Illustrated. Thank you to our guests this week, Laura Duncombe and Jamie Goodall, and of course our very own Alyse Knorr. You can read more about our guests and where to find them on our website.

AK: You can find us on Twitter and Instagram at @sweetbitterpod, or contact us on our website, sweetbitterpodcast.com.

EB: And this week’s sea shanty is of course about Zheng Yi Sao. It is called “Zheng Yi Sao: Master of Ocean Crimes,” written and performed by Alyse, with production by Joshua. Here it is.