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The Ultimate Travel Guide of "Eastern Pirateland" in the Early 19th Century

Updated: Jul 22, 2022

When we think of pirates, we picture a man with a hook and a parrot. Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean, Blackbeard and Long John Silver may come to mind. In this article, we will travel back to the "Eastern Pirateland" in the early 19th century South China Sea.

Major Differences between Chinese and Western Pirates

The word "pirate", of European origin, does not easily translate across cultures. Among many Chinese translations for "pirate", the most common term is ‘haidao’ (海盜) (meaning "sea bandit"). This Chinese term covers a wide range of lawless seaborne activities, whereas in the West, the activities of pirates are more defined. Imperial China recognised the concept of an "inner sea" and an "outer sea" divided by a fluid, ill-defined "sea-frontier". But a Chinese emperor had no concept of international waters and did not consider what the West called the "high seas" which was beyond China’s control. For China, the term "sea bandit" means all criminal acts at sea, no matter they were committed close to the shore line or in the outer sea.

For the West, piracy was an act committed on the high seas that affected the international maritime community. Crimes within the "inner-sea", i.e. the designated "territorial waters" in the West, were subject to the state that owned the waters. These crimes referred to specific acts of theft, murder, and smuggling.

HM Sloop 'Ariel' engaging a pirate Chinese junk, 19th century, HKMM2010.0192.0009


The South China Sea is a marginal sea south of China and is connected with several countries. Owing to the "Canton System" policy, it was the major international shipping lane and the second most used sea lane in the world.

Pacifying of South China Sea, 1810, HKMM2004.0102.0001

Meet the Legends

South China Sea was a heaven for pirates in the early 19th century. In this article, let us meet the legendary pirates of the Red Flag Fleet.

Leader of Red Flag Fleet: Zheng Yi

Red Flag Fleet in the Scroll of Pacifying of South China Sea, 1810, HKMM2004.0102.0001

Zheng Yi was a Chinese pirate who lived from 1765 to 1807. He was the greatest of all time among his peers, fans, and the Qing Government. Zheng Yi came from a long line of sea bandits, and he was a powerful Chinese pirate who ruled the South China Sea in the early 19th century. He united and built up the large pirate confederation and became the leader of “Red Flag Fleet”. Zheng Yi and his followers were so strong that even the Qing Government feared them.

The Pirate Queen: Zheng Yi Sao

Zheng Yi Sao depicted in a 1836 history of piracy via Wikimedia Commons

Zheng Yi Sao was born in 1775 and married to Zheng Yi at age 26 in 1801 and became a pirate. After the death of her husband in 1807, she took control of his pirate confederation with the support of his adopted son Zhang Bao.

In 1809, Qing Government sent an armada to attack Zheng Yi Sao’s fleet. However, she easily defeated the Government, capturing 63 ships and persuading most of the crew to join her. By 1810, she was said to have commanded a fleet of 1,800 ships with more than 80,000 followers, and to have effectively controlled most of Guangdong province, as well as trade routes and fishing rights in the South China Sea. She has been described as the most successful female pirate in history.

The Pirate Legend: Zhang Bao

Picture of Zhang Bao via Wikimedia Commons

Zhang Bao was born in 1783 and he was a son of a Tanka fisherman who livid in Xinhui. Around 1798, he was abducted at age 15 by the pirate Zheng Yi who pressed him into piracy. His natural talent helped him adapt to his unplanned new career and he rose through the ranks swiftly.

After Zheng Yi death in 1807, Zheng Yi Sao acted quickly to solidify the partnership with Zhang Bao. Zhang Bao became the second in command, he owned more than 600 ships and more than 50,000 followers. In 1810, he and his wife Zheng Yi Sao accepted an amnesty offered by the Qing Government, ending their pirate career. Afterwards, he was capitulated to the Qing Dynasty Government and became a captain in the Qing's Guangdong navy, receiving the rank of navy colonel.

Safety Tips for Traveling in "Eastern Pirateland"

Despite its romantic image in books and stories, piracy is a grim, harsh, ruthless business. Travelling to "Eastern Pirateland" can be exciting, but don’t forget about your safety! Here are some tips to help keep you safe.

Pirates Assault on Coastal Residents, 19th century, On loan from Mr. Anthony Hardy, HKMM2013.0030.0001

1. Beware of the Junks

English tole painted green ground tea canister and cover, 1830. HKMM2011.0181.0001

When asked about the flag most associated with pirates, you can probably name a few symbols – skull and crossbones on a black field. Unfortunately, the Chinese pirate were smart enough not to put this signature flag or any flag on their ships. On the other hand, the Chinese pirate may raid on passenger vessels, local and ocean going, by pirates who had boarded as passengers themselves – so beware of scams when traveling by junks.

2. Keep Away from the War Zone

Chinese troops engaging pirates on the China coast, Chinese School, c.1820, HKMM2016.0021.0001

South China Sea was home to the world’s largest fleets of sea bandits, resulting in a string of skirmishes between them and the Chinese Imperial authorities that was perhaps the longest lasting in global maritime history. Going into such an area could be a bad idea since you may provoke heated reactions; among other things, you may be taken for a spy. Tourists could be just as much a target of hostility as any military force.

3. Keep an Eye on Your Belongings

Whenever you are in a busy public place, be on your guard to make sure that your personal belongings and souvenirs like porcelain, tea, and rolls of silk are safe. Don’t wear a lot of expensive jewelry or accessories – keep it simple and only carry the basics.

Canton enamel dish with gilt decoration of a sailing ship, 18th-19th century, HKMM2006.0141.0001

4. Research before Traveling

When traveling to a new destination, do your homework beforehand. Find out more about Chinese Pirates and the Story of Zhang Yi Sou from our online shop. All these are geared towards ensuring that you have a better "travel experience".

Do you want to continue your voyage of discovery around the South China Sea? You can read our travel guide of Guangzhou here. We hope you enjoyed your visit to the "Eastern Pirateland"!

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