Not the Pirate Queen

Is this Cheng Yat Sou?

Not the Pirate Queen

Do a search for the Chinese Pirate Queen or any of the names she’s known by, and you will find hundreds of versions of this photograph, in books, magazine articles, YouTube videos, and even some scholarly articles. I have no idea where it first appeared. But is this Cheng Yat Sou (鄭一嫂, a.k.a. Cheng I Sao, Shek Yang, Shih Yang)?

Let’s start with some facts about her:

• Shek Yang was born in 1775;
• She was active as a pirate from 1801 to 1810, retiring from piracy at age 36;
• She passed away in 1844.

And some facts about photography:

• The first ever photograph of a human subject was taken in 1838;
• The first photographs taken in China were in the 1850s.

In other words, Shek Yang was never photographed in her life.

Ching Shih

If you study the image closely, it looks like it might have been an etching, so it could have been her. Or maybe not.

Look at the sword, our first clue: a European style saber with its loop guard arcing across the hilt. Chinese swords had broader blades and a simple grip. Then there’s the cute little scholar’s cap, not something an illiterate boat woman would have worn, unless as a practical joke.

The puffy sleeves, straight out of pirate tales of the Caribbean, protruding from a sleeveless, form-fitting cheong sam, which didn’t come into fashion until after 1911, are dead giveaways that the undoubtedly American or European photographer or engraver was less concerned with historical accuracy than with making a pretty Asian model look badass.

Not Cheng Yat Sou

What about this image, found online with the title “Undated photo of Cheng I Sao”? We’ve already established that she never sat in front of a camera, so unless the photographer had access to a time machine, it will remain forever undated and not her.

Then we have the image below, the second-most commonly found portrait of the Pirate Queen facing down her victims. This looks to me like a cross between an Amazon warrior and Joan of Arc, both of whom might have had things in common with Cheng Yat Sou. Except for her clothes, armor, weapons, and, my goodness, those gloves!

Pirate or Amazon?

The image that comes closest to having any authority is part of a mid-1800s panoramic triptych painting called “Pacifying the South China Sea”. The anonymous painter included scenes of Cheng Yat Sou commanding the pirates, as in this detail.

Pacifying the South China Sea

Pacifying the South China Sea
Extreme closeup; this image is less than 3 cm tall

Finally, a more up-to-date image of the fearsome lady pirate, from the in the 2007 film Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. The outfit is plausible, if exaggerated. But we already know that she retired from a life of crime at age 36, so who is this old crow meant to be? Disney missed an opportunity to make Mistress Ching a more Mulan-style fighting femme.

Disneyfied Cheng Yat Sou

Then what did she actually look like? Sadly, the small handful of firsthand accounts don’t offer a physical description. But we have a few clues.

First, as cliche as it seems, she must have been quite attractive. Pirate captains typically chose the prettiest female captives for themselves. Need I say more? Considering her ambition, her eventual positions as admiral’s wife, then matriarch and finally leader of the pirates, she would certainly have dressed for the role.

How would she have dressed in everyday life, while working aboard ship? Perhaps like other Chinese boat women? If so, this is how she’d have looked:

Chinnery's Tanka Girl
Cantonese boat girl

First we have a painting of a Chinese boat woman from 1830 by George Chinnery, an English painter who spent most of his life in Macau. In between painting portraits of wealthy European and Chinese socialites for his living, he made thousands of sketches and paintings of local people and daily life around the south China coast.

His depiction of a boat woman is verified by these photos by John Thomson from the 1870s. Here we see the long loose-fitting tunic and trousers made of blue or black sateen and the characteristic headscarf which set them apart from land-based women. When working aboard ship they were more likely to wear a wide plaited hat to protect from sun and rain.

On more formal occasions boat women wore their hair in a distinct, complex woven bun, seen below in another Thomson photo (as well as many from other photographers and artists).

Boat girls
Tanka woman
Boat Woman woodcut

Speaking of formal occasions, boat women enjoyed dressing up as much as their land-based counterparts. Their formal tunics followed Cantonese style, which differed from the Manchu-imposed fashions elsewhere in the Ching Dynasty. This etching from a travelogue published in 1880 is a rare portrait of a boat woman in formal dress.

This all begs the question: how accurate is the image of Yang on the cover of The Flower Boat Girl?

Start with the hair. There was no rigid style she’d have been obliged to follow. She might have worn it in many ways, but as can be seen above, boat women also wore their hair quite simply pinned back. Chinese women have worn lip gloss for thousands of years, made of various materials, and normally in different shades of red. Her lips might be on the pink side on the book cover, but they’re still within the bounds of fashion.

Because of the nature of their work, Chinese boat women didn’t typically weigh down their collars, ears, or hair with jewels. Simple is best.

Finally, the robe. This is an authentic formal outfit, something she’d have worn to a wedding or to meet an emperor, or to pose for a portrait. The collar, placket shape and placement, and the pattern are all faithful to those worn by wealthy Cantonese women of the period. And I do believe that red truly suits her.

I almost forgot to mention the authentic Chinese sword.

What did Cheng Yat Sou really look like? Nobody knows for sure. Which is maybe how it should be, adding to her allure, and leaving it up to you, dear reader, to picture this strong, brilliant, and probably beautiful woman in your mind.

The Flower Boat Girl