Cheng I Sao
- Died: 1844
- Other Names: Ching Shih, Lady Ch'ing
Cheng I Sao was an early 19th century Chinese pirate, perhaps the most famous of female Chinese pirate leaders.
Originally from the Guangdong (Canton) region, she worked as a prostitute for a time before marrying a pirate. The two together extorted villages for protection money, attacked ships, and ransomed crews. When her husband died in 1807, she took over control of his pirate confederation, and with his adopted son as her new lover, continued to terrorize the region for three years.
Cheng established a pirates' code of strict punishments for thieves and deserters, and a strict system of divvying up each sailor's share of the booty. Sailors who violated her code, including those who had affairs with captives, were drowned or beheaded.
Cheng amassed numerous warehouses of supplies and weapons, and with her significant fleets often posed a serious threat to even the Qing imperial navy. Some imperial officers and perhaps even an admiral are said to have committed suicide rather than be captured and tortured by Cheng. She also ravaged local settlements, seeking no popular favor (unlike Zheng Zhilong a century & a half earlier), and instead raping, murdering and plundering her way through coastal villages.
In 1810, the Qing secured an agreement with some European navies to work together to combat Cheng's fleets. She quickly surrendered and negotiated for amnesty, with thousands of her men likewise turning over their weapons. Some of these pirates were convicted and punished for their crimes, but many retained their plunder and some even joined the Imperial navy. Cheng meanwhile faded into the background, returning to Canton and continuing to be involved with smugglers and the like, but in a far quieter way, up until her death in 1844.
- Matt Matsuda, Pacific Worlds, University of Cambridge Press (2012), 110-111.