As fans of the British sci-fi series “Doctor Who” collapsed into their sofas at the conclusion of the show’s most recent episode, “Eve of the Daleks,” those of us who are also fans of Chinese history were staring slack-jawed 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-frame shot of Hong Kong-born actress Crystal Yu.
The legendary pirate queen best 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 corrupted 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, reference her fierce reputation and past as a brothel worker, respectively.
Hardly anyone refers to her by her 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 at all, under any name, is a testament to Sek’s amazing self-transformation from marginalized woman to pirate queen, as well as the fame — some might say infamy — she won in the process. For the purposes of this article, I will honor the legacy of the woman behind the legend by calling her Sek Yeung, except where context requires I use one of her other titles.
According to accounts from the period, Sek Yeung was born in 1775 in South China. Her early years read as though they were ripped straight from a noir novel: In 1801, while working in a small floating brothel in the coastal city of Guangzhou, the 26-year-old Sek was captured by pirates. Later, one of her captors, Tzeng Yut, took Sek for his bride.
According to custom, Sek from then on was known as “Tzeng Yut’s Wife.” Soon, she began helping her husband form alliances with other pirates, and turning their own organization, the Hongqibang, or “Red Flag Gang,” into one of the region’s most powerful navies. After Tzeng drowned during a typhoon off the Vietnamese coast in 1807, Sek took over his position, first as the head of the Red Flags, then as leader of a vast pirate alliance.
In contrast to the Western seafaring tradition, it was common for South Chinese pirates to bring their whole families to sea, and women engaged in combat and performed other duties on board the ships. Even by those standards, Sek Yeung stood out for her leadership abilities, tactical acumen, and ability to project authority. With a fleet of about 600 ships and 60,000 hands at its peak, the Red Flags maintained strict discipline under Sek, and the clan meted out severe punishments to anyone who broke its three “golden rules”: no desertion, no thieving from the clan, and no violence against women.
Sek’s pirate alliance would face off against the Qing and the navies of Western colonial powers — Portugal, in particular — multiple times over the years, including a famous siege at the city of Humen, before her ever-shrewd instincts prompted her to negotiate a treaty with the governors-general of the Lingnan region in South China in 1810. The treaty ended her career in piracy, ensured advantageous retirement terms for her clan, and provided a government post 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 Macao and occasionally lending her expertise in maritime strategy to the Guangdong government as it sought to stop the opium trade.
An illustration from “Pirates: An Illustrated History of Privateers, Buccaneers & Pirates from the Sixteenth Century to the Present.” Wikipedia
Sadly, 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 an entire TV series, “Captain of Destiny,” devoted to him in 2015. In “Captain,” Sek is a bit player, a kidnapped woman from a well-to-do family with little agency.
Screenwriters aren’t the only ones guilty of defanging Auntie Dragon. In contrast to Western academics like Philip Gosse and Joseph Gollomb, who occasionally sensationalized Sek’s persona and deeds, influential Chinese writers such as the Qing official Yuan Yonglun — whose book is one of the very few historical sources on Chinese piracy during this period — preferred to gloss over Sek’s achievements in favor of her second husband, Cheong.
The truth, as with so much of history, lies somewhere in the middle. Though that hasn’t stopped male so-called “history buff” YouTubers from trying to tear down Sek Yeung’s reputation, often using the research of male scholars working from Qing historical records without acknowledging, much less accounting for, these sources’ biases against women and ignorance of pirate social norms.
The character designs of “Shih Yang” (Sek Yeung, left) and Zheng He. From the “Asian Pirate Musical” website
For such a fascinating, intelligent, and dare I say it, cool folk hero, it’s a shame Sek Yeung is not better known in her own country. Instead, it is Western depictions of Sek as a powerful leader, smart businesswoman, and fearsome pirate queen that define her in the modern imagination, turning her into a global cultural icon whose power resonates far beyond the confines of history.
Sek appears in Western literature as early as 1935, as “The Widow Ching” in Jorge Luis Borges’ “A Universal History of Infamy.” More recently, Sek’s story has inspired Anglophone female writers like Erika Owen, Laura Sook Duncombe, British East-Asian journalist and broadcaster Zing Tsjeng, and historical fiction author D.W. Plato, as well as children’s authors like J.L. Bleakley. When Disney needed a Chinese pirate to attend a council of pirate captains in 2007’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” Sek’s fame made her an obvious choice, though the film’s depiction of her as a heavily made-up brothel madam attending a meeting held before she was even born was less than flattering.
Outside of the Western cultural mainstream, Sek’s nonconformity makes her a rich source of material for creatives who themselves exist outside traditional norms. Take the new British production “Asian Pirate Musical,” for example. Produced by London’s Papergang Theatre, the show intertwines the lives of Sek Yeung, 14th-century diplomat, admiral, and eunuch Zheng He, and other queer survivors and revolutionaries past, present, and future.
On stage, Sek turns her nose up at the title by which she is best known: “‘First Wife of Pirate Cheng’? I cannot believe that is the name that stuck...”
“This is an indulgent spot of historical fiction and our creative choice, a demonstration of her independence and capability beyond being forever known as the wife of a pirate husband,” one of the show’s writers, Nemo Martin, told me.
“It is also a response to large-scale productions such as ‘Miss Saigon,’ ‘The King and I,’ and ‘Madame Butterfly’ — Western stage shows written by white men attempting to depict a fantastical and ‘oriental’ Asia,” Martin added. “In a British ESEA (East and Southeast Asia) musical designed 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 homogenous or monolithic, then unite once again under the banner of a broader, celebratory solidarity we call ‘Asian Pirate Musical.’”
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 at last got a TV series devoted to Sek’s life, one in which she is depicted not as a passive gentlewoman, but as a folk hero who rallies the pirates to protect the poor and weak and helps to quash the opium trade.
In the literary world, the renowned novelist and screenwriter Jiang Shengnan has spotlighted Sek in her series of short novels exploring influential women in history, “Considering the World.” And online, female web novelists like Xiaoyue and Xiaqi Suxin have been active in re-imagining Sek’s story, with her life being the central focus of their works, seemingly for the first time in Chinese literary history. The latter’s “The Legend of Pirate Zheng Yi Sao,” for example, fits squarely into the genre known in Chinese as nüzun, which focuses on matriarchal power dynamics.
This weekend, “Doctor Who” fans will finally get to see the BBC’s take on Sek’s life. It’s the first episode of “Doctor Who” to be set in China since the show’s first season all the way back 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 her portrayal reminds the show’s growing Chinese fandom just how great our heroes are, whatever side of the law they may be on.
Correction: An earlier version of this article contained several inaccuracies regarding Sek Yeung's early life. The piece has been updated accordingly.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A still from “Doctor Who: Legend of the Sea Devils.” From Douban)