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Our Flag Means Death season 2: Who was the real pirate queen, Zheng Yi Sao?

Our Flag Means Death's new season introduced another real-life pirate to its cast of characters. Here's her story.

Still production photo of Ruibo Qian
Image credit: Nicola Dove/Max

It's unusual for the real life version of a character to actually live up to the coolness factor of their fictionalized counterparts, but Our Flag Means Death's newly introduced Pirate Queen absolutely fits the bill. Played in the new season by Rubio Qian, Zheng Yi Sao provides some nearly-divine intervention for Stede and his motley crew as they try to get back on their feet, but her crew is anything but a ragtag group of misfits. Instead, she seems to command a well-oiled machine of uniformed sailors, mostly women, who have, as she puts it, a "particular way" of doing things.

Who was the real-life Zheng Yi Sao?

As it turns out, this isn't too far from the mark. In actual history, Zheng Yi Sao is understood to be one of the most successful pirates of all time, having commanded upwards of 400 ships and 60,000 sailors at the height of her power back in the early 1800s. Her origins are not entirely clear, but it's largely assumed she was born a Tanka, one of the ethnic groups of China who lived on ships in the coastal regions of places like Guangdong and Hainan. It's also possible she worked in a boat-based brothel until her marriage to the pirate Zheng Yi in 1801.

Zheng Yi Sao and Zheng Yi's marriage lasted six years, until Zheng Yi fell overboard during a storm and died, leaving Zheng Yi Sao to take over her late husband's pirate fleet. With the support of her family, Zheng Yi Sao was able to not only maintain leadership, but grow the number of ships and sailors under her command over the years, commanding absolute respect from the entire confederation of pirates she helped form. Among the fleets at her disposal were groups called the Red Flag Fleet and the White Flag Fleet, both of which played roles in major battles against the navy of the ruling Qing dynasty.

But the Qing dynasty weren't the only ones pressured by Zheng Yi Sao's confederation of pirates. Eventually she and her forces found themselves butting heads against the Portuguese navy as well, who joined with the authorities to bring the pirates to heel. Eventually, in 1810, Zheng Yi Sao's confederation was ended with a surrender to the Qing dynasty authorities -- though the pirates were able to leverage the surrender as a negotiation tactic more than a complete defeat. Authorities allowed her and her crews to be pardoned and join the navy in a formal capacity. Zheng Yi Sao herself took to a peaceful life of running an "infamous" gambling house in Guangdong, which she ran until she died in 1844.

How accurate is Our Flag Means Death's depiction of Zheng Yi Sao?

Notably, Our Flag Means Death is playing a bit fast and loose with the historical timeline here -- though this certainly isn't the first time and won't be the last time the show does this. In reality, both Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard's time on the high seas ended almost a hundred years before Zheng Yi Sao's began. It's probably best to not think too hard about those sort of details for the sake of the show.

More than just the vast number of ships and pirates at her command, Zheng Yi Sao was known for her strict management skills and demand of absolute adherence to rules and customs amongst her crews. She was known to punish dissension in the ranks of her underlings with absolute authority, even going as far as to immediately order the decapitation of anyone who thought they could give orders on their own.

It's probably unlikely that she, like her Our Flag Means Death counterpart, also enforced group activities like ship-based morning yoga, but hey, we can pretend!

Our Flag Means Death season 2 is off to a bizarre, dark, and fun start

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Our Flag Means Death

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About the Author

Mason Downey

Contributing writer