The Ever-Evolving Legacy of China’s Pirate Queen


As fans of the British sci-fi series ‘Doctor Who’ collapsed into their sofas at the end of the show’s most recent episode, ‘Eve of the Daleks’, those of us who are Also fans of Chinese history were gawking at the trailer for the Doctor’s next adventure. Not because it promises the return of a classic monster or because it will be Jodie Whitaker’s penultimate outing as the Doctor, but because of what the Doctor exclaims as the camera cuts to a full-screen shot of Hong Kong-born actress Crystal Yu.

“Madame Ching?” »

The legendary pirate queen better known in English as “Madam Ching” has a long list of aliases and titles. Two of the best known, Ching Shih and Ching-Yi Sao, are mixtures of Corrupt Cantonese and Wade-Giles Romanization; both identify her by her marriage to Tzeng Yut, the pirate leader from whom she inherited her power and position. Other aliases, such as Auntie Dragon and the Fragrant Lady, refer to her fierce reputation and past as a brothel worker, respectively.

Almost no one calls him by his birth name, Sek Yeung. The story of how Sek Yeung became Ching-Yi Sao – or if you prefer pinyin, Zheng Yi Sao – reflects the low status of women in traditional patriarchal society. That she is remembered, by any name, speaks to Sek’s astonishing transformation from marginalized woman to pirate queen, as well as the fame – some might say infamy – that she won in the process. For the purposes of this article, I will honor the legacy of the woman behind the caption by calling her Sek Yeung, unless the context requires, I use one of her other titles.

According to the Qing’s own historical records, Sek Yeung was born in 1775 into a ruined pirate family in the Pearl River Delta region of southern China. Her early years seem to have been taken straight from a thriller: In 1790, while working in a small floating brothel in the city of Guangzhou, 15-year-old Sek was captured by the Hongqibang, or “Red Flag Gang,” one of the six major pirate organizations that ruled the seas in the region, each sailing under a different colored flag. After he was captured, the leader of the Hongqibang, Tzeng Yut, took Sek as his wife.

According to custom, Sek was henceforth known as the “wife of Tzeng Yut”. Soon, she began to help her husband form alliances between the six gangs as they built Hongqibang into one of the strongest marines in the region. After Tzeng was drowned in a typhoon off the coast of Vietnam in 1807, the 42-year-old Sek took office, first as head of the Red Flags, then as head of a vast alliance of hackers.

Contrary to Western maritime tradition, it was common for South Chinese pirates to bring their entire families to sea, and women engaged in combat and performed other duties aboard ships. Even by these standards, Sek Yeung stood out for her leadership abilities, tactical acumen, and ability to project her authority. With a fleet of around 600 ships and 60,000 men at its peak, the Red Flags maintained strict discipline under Sek, and the clan meted out severe punishments for anyone breaking its three “golden rules”: no desertion , no clan theft, and no violence against women.

Sek’s pirate alliance would clash with the Qing and the navies of the western colonial powers – Portugal, in particular – several times over the years, including a famous siege of the city of Humen, before his ever-wiser instincts do not encourage him to negotiate a treaty. with the governors-general of the Lingnan region in southern China in 1810. The treaty ended her career in piracy, secured favorable retirement terms for her clan, and provided a government position for her second husband , as well as an official title for herself. She spent the last 34 years of her life running gambling and brothel businesses in Macau and occasionally lending her maritime strategy expertise to the Guangdong government as it sought to shut down the opium trade.

An illustration from ‘Pirates: An Illustrated History of Privateers, Buccaneers and Pirates from the 16th Century to the Present’. Wikipedia

Unfortunately, for all her accomplishments, Sek Yeung’s legacy has been overshadowed in China by that of her second husband, Cheong Po Tsai, or Zhang Baozai, who appeared as a character in the “Once Upon a Time in China” films. “and had a whole TV series,”Captain of Fatewas dedicated to him in 2015. In “Captain,” Sek is a bit of a gamer, a kidnapped woman from a wealthy family with little agency.

The writers aren’t the only culprits for disfiguring Aunt Dragon. Unlike Western scholars like Philip Gosse and Joseph Gollomb, who sometimes sensationalised Sek’s personality and deeds, influential Chinese writers such as Qing official Yuan Yonglun – whose book is one of the few historical sources on piracy Chinese at that time – preferred to conceal Sek’s accomplishments in favor of her second husband, Cheong.

The truth, as with much of the story, lies somewhere in the middle. Although that hasn’t stopped so-called “history-savvy” male YouTubers from trying to undermine Sek Yeung’s reputation, often using the research of male scholars working from Qing historical archives without acknowledging, and still less take into account the prejudices of these sources against women. and ignoring the social norms of pirates.

The character designs of

The character designs of “Shih Yang” (Sek Yeung, left) and Zheng He. Excerpt from the “Asian Pirate Musical” website

For such a fascinating, intelligent, and dare I say cool heroine, it’s a shame that Sek Yeung isn’t better known in her own country. Instead, it is Western depictions of Sek as a powerful ruler, clever businesswoman and fearsome pirate queen that define her in the modern imagination, transforming her into a global cultural icon whose power resonates well with the world. beyond the limits of history.

The writers aren’t the only culprits for disfiguring Aunt Dragon.

Sek appears in Western literature as early as 1935, as “The Widow Ching” in “A Universal History of Infamy” by Jorge Luis Borges. More recently, Sek’s story has inspired English-language writers like Erika Owen, Laura Sook Duncombe, British East Asian journalist and broadcaster Zing Tsjeng, and historical fiction writer DW Plato, as well as authors for kids like JL Bleakley. When Disney needed a Chinese pirate to attend a pirate captain’s council in 2007’s ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End’, Sek’s fame made him an obvious choice, although the description of the film portraying her as a heavily made-up brothel woman attending a meeting held before she was even born was far from flattering.

Outside the mainstream of Western culture, Sek’s nonconformity makes her a rich source of material for creatives who themselves exist outside of mainstream norms. Take the new British production “Asian Pirate Musical”, for example. Produced by the Papergang Theater in London, the show interweaves the life of Sek Yeung, 14th-century diplomat, admiral and eunuch Zheng He, and other past, present and future queer and revolutionary survivors.

On stage, Sek ignores the title by which she is best known: “’First Wife of Pirate Cheng’? I can’t believe that’s the name that stuck…”

“It’s an indulgent place of historical fiction and our creative choice, a demonstration of her independence and abilities beyond being known forever as the wife of a pirate husband,” the maker told me. one of the show’s writers, Nemo Martin.

“It’s also a response to large-scale productions such as ‘Miss Saigon’, ‘The King and I’ and ‘Madame Butterfly’ – Western shows written by white men who attempt to portray a fantastical, ‘Eastern’ Asia. ‘” Martin added. “In a British musical ESEA (East and South East Asia) conceived by a diverse collective and featuring an ensemble cast of characters from various parts of ESEA, we loudly declare that ‘Asian “as a lived experience is not homogeneous or monolithic, then let us once again unite under the banner of a larger, festive solidarity that we call “Asian Pirate Musical”.

Covers of Chinese novels about Sek Yeung.  Courtesy of the author

Covers of Chinese novels about Sek Yeung. Courtesy of the author

Meanwhile, China’s feminist awakening is finally leading the country’s storytellers to rediscover and re-examine Sek. In 2020, Chinese audiences were finally treated to a television series dedicated to Sek’s life, one in which she is portrayed not as a passive nice woman, but as a popular heroine who rallies pirates to protect the poor and the weak and helps to stifle the opium trade. .

In 2020, Chinese audiences were finally treated to a TV series dedicated to Sek’s life.

In the literary world, acclaimed novelist and screenwriter Jiang Shengnan spotlighted Sek in her series of short novels exploring influential women in history, “Considering the World.” And online, web novelists like Xiaoyue and Xiaqi Suxin have been actively reimagining Sek’s story, with his life at the center of their works, seemingly for the first time in Chinese literary history. The latter’s legend of the pirate Zheng Yi Sao, for example, fits neatly into the genre known in Chinese as nüzunwhich focuses on matriarchal power dynamics.

This weekend, ‘Doctor Who’ fans will finally be able to see the BBC’s take on Sek’s life. It’s the first “Doctor Who” episode to be set in China since the show’s first season in 1964, and the episode’s director, Haolu Wang, is the show’s first of East Asian descent. Whether in history or legend, Sek Yeung has always been a heroic figure. I hope “Doctor Who” does Sek justice and that his rendition reminds the show’s growing Chinese fandom just how great our heroes are, no matter what side of the law they’re on.

Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: an image from “Doctor Who: Legend of the Sea Devils”. By Douban)


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