by Yoon Joung Lee
Cheng I Sao started her first career as a beautiful Chinese prostitute called Shih Yang. In 1801, she married Cheng Yi, who was a notorious Chinese pirate captain. Cheng Yi’s family were successful pirates tracing their criminal origins back to the 17th Century. Cheng I Sao and Cheng Yi adopted a son named Chang Pao.
In 1807, Cheng’s I Sao’s husband died and left a united pirate coalition numbering 400 ships and over 70,000 sailors. She took over the fleet after some political maneuvering. The fleet, under her leadership, increased in size and dominance, occupying many coastal villages.
She fell into an affair with her lieutenant and adoptive son and married the lieutenant and cemented the family’s hold on the fleet. Chang Pao led the pirates to battle while his adoptive mother controlled the strategy of the family’s piracy business. Sao managed the fleet with very strictly enforced laws and commands given by the leaders of the fleet. She re-established piracy code to deal out harsher penalties than before. They often committed various piracy acts including attacking the traditional merchant ships and pillaging villages along rivers. The Chinese government tried to stop the pirates during a series of battles in 1808. However, the government failed.
In 1810, Cheng I Sao retired from piracy and opened a gambling house in Guangzhou. She sought a pardon from the Chinese government and received grants after her rival pirates called O-po-tae sought a pardon from the government and received grants. She died peacefully, as a grandmother, at the age of 69 in 1844 and Chang Pao spent the rest of his life comfortably while working for the government.