Zheng Shi: Terror of the South China Sea
The other night, I was watching Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl for probably the tenth time. Johnny Depp’s tipsy, swaggering portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow never fails to delight me. Just prior to this particular screening, however, I had seen a story about the history of the Equal Rights Amendment, and that led me to wonder if there had ever been female pirate captains on the high seas.
An Internet search of the topic turned up dozens of women pirates who plundered the seven seas from as early as the 3rd century B.C., when Queen Teuta of Illyria dominated the Adriatic to well into the late 20th century when Cheng Chui Ping, or “Sister Ping,” operated a highly successful human trafficking scheme between Hong Kong and New York City. The woman who most piqued my interest, though, was Zheng Shi, whose name literally translates to “the widow Zheng.” Zheng Shi was the ruthless Chinese leader of a pirate fleet that terrorized the South China Sea, from Guangdong, China, to the southern tip of Vietnam during the early 19th century in the Jiaqing period of the Qing dynasty.
In 1801, the young and beautiful Shih Yang was working as a prostitute in a Canton brothel, when she was kidnapped by a pirate hoard. Zheng Yi, the Admiral of the pirate fleet claimed the young woman as his wife. The young woman persuaded Zheng to make her a co-equal head of the fleet as the condition of her acceptance of his proposal. Together, the couple built an enormous coalition of Cantonese pirates. After Zheng’s death, Zheng Shi retained leadership of the fleet and went on to become one of the most successful pirates in history.
Throughout history, there have always been women who have defied tradition to break through the barriers that would prevent them from reaching their goals. My search for women pirates took me down quite a digital rabbit hole, in which I discovered the stories of many more women who broke the mold in the sciences, TV and film, literature, and other fields. I’ll share more of their inspirational stories in future articles.