At the height of her power, she had personal command over a fleet of 226 war junks and more than 17,000 men, and stood at the centre of a grand pirate confederation that included some 70,000 men and perhaps over a thousand vessels. She has been hailed as the “Pirate Queen” and “the most successful pirate of all time,” yet precious little is known about the origins and inner life of the legendary figure best known as Cheng I Sao.
A new book from Larry Feign, American-born cartoonist and author well-known to Hongkongers for his World of Lily Wong comics, seeks to fill this gap in our understanding. The Flower Boat Girl, a biographical novel told in the first person, begins before Cheng I Sao (1755-1844) was Cheng I Sao – the “wife of Cheng I.” As a prostitute in the floating brothels of the Pearl River Delta, our protagonist, born Shek Yang, is abducted by sea rovers and forced to marry their captain Cheng Yat (also known as Cheng I), a direct descendent of the “Pirate King” Koxinga (also known as Zheng Chenggong) who took Taiwan from the Dutch and made it the last holdout of the Ming dynasty.
Like many powerful women in Chinese history, Shek is often portrayed as a shrewd social climber who used her feminine wiles to seduce and manipulate her way to the top. In some accounts, she is a madam who traded in pillow talk from her elite clientele, and sought out her union with Cheng as a bold business maneuver. Not so in Feign’s version, whose titular flower boat girl emerges as a likeable protagonist: an impoverished Tanka girl sold into slavery by her own father before her eventual kidnapping. After some initial bids to escape and ranson herself with her earnings, she eventually finds a form of liberation and empowerment with the sea bandits, as she earns the respect of her husband and his partners in crime. Long under the thumb of her dead-beat father and her abusive Punti customers, she comes into her own as Cheng I Sao.
“The more I learned about Shek Yang,” Feign says, “the more I wondered what kind of person she was deep inside. What did she want? What did she dream about? She must have been extraordinarily clever, considering what she accomplished within a world dominated by strongmen. She had to be utterly charismatic, whether by nature or cultivated, able to read men’s souls. The picture of her as a swashbuckling fighter couldn’t come close to explaining this complex and mystifying woman.”
Plagued by the paucity of first-hand accounts and precipitous gaps in the historical records unfortunately common to those on China’s maritime frontiers, Feign realised that a straightforward biography wouldn’t do – only a novel could truly bring his subject to life. Throughout this epic journey of her rise, Feign’s commitment to accuracy and authenticity is clear, from the consistent romanisation of names in Cantonese—the language most widely spoken by the pirates—and the colourful Cantonese curse words, to the anatomy and operation of the sampans and oceangoing war junks themselves, replete with nautical features unique to the South China shipbuilding tradition.
The Flower Boat Girl hits all of the mean beats of the story behind history’s great piratical fleet. Cheng’s forces, at first under the command of his cousin Cheng Chat, set a course of the Annamese coast, where they serve as privateers and a mercenary navy for the Tây Sơn Dynasty. After their allies are quashed by the ascendent Lê Dynasty, their bloated and battle-hardened fleets limp back to the Cantonese coast.
With the continentally-minded Qing Dynasty’s military might focused inland on quashing the White Turban Rebellion, the pirates run amok and quickly become victims of their own success. With salt junks and cargo carriers falling prey to a succession of seaborne raiders, the trade routes begin to dry up. Profits get slimmer and infighting becomes more intense. As Cheng Yat’s Red Flag Fleet makes Lantau’s Tung Chung their new home port, it is Shek Yang herself who masterminds the formation of the Confederation of the Coloured Flags, installing a protection racket with shared profits that allowed maritime trade to flourish again. The Flower Boat Girl draws to a close after Cheng Yat’s death, as his widow adroitly navigates the politics and alliances of the confederation she created to install herself as leader and wed her (hitherto) adopted son, the legendary local outlaw Cheung Po Tsai.
From these lofty heights, things inevitably fall apart. Battles set the seascape alight as some Confederation fleets accept the Qing Imperial Commissioner Bai Ling’s offer of amnesty, and turn pirate-hunter. But what makes the story of Cheng I Sao so remarkable—besides the sheer scale of the operation—was how she did what so few pirates managed: to keep her spoils and successfully retire, living out her days in peace. The Flower Boat Girl, unfortunately, does not depict Cheng I Sao and Cheung Po Tsai’s dramatic, if graceful fall from power. This equally remarkable part of her story remains fodder for future instalments.
As Cheng I Sao herself presages in her stirring speech to the assembled fleet commanders after her husband’s death: “The roving bandit days are over. We are the masters of the coast for ten thousand li. Of course, the Mandarins don’t call us that. They smear us as scum floating on the sea or robber hornets. But that’s all they can fight us with: their words.”
Ultimately, they did have one other weapon to fight the pirates with: money. Unable to triumph over Cheng I Sao’s forces at sea, they used official amnesty, military postings and the offer that they could keep their spoils and even maintain their own forces in exchange for their promise to go no more a-roving. Nonetheless, her boasting of her confederation’s achievements are hardly an exaggeration. “We achieved the impossible, which their incapable navy never could,” she proclaims. “We brought stability to this coast. And we’re rich from it. Everyone’s happy! Merchants beg to pay our protection fees. Villagers no longer run to the hills. Even foreign barbarians are wary of us. We’re the true power, and neither the emperor nor his shoe-shining governors can stop us. Isn’t that right?”