Real life pirate queen Madame Ching joined forces with the Doctor to save Earth in Legend of the Sea Devils… But who was the real Zheng Yi Sao?

The celebrity historical was one of Russell T Davies’ great innovations during his first time around at the helm of the good ship Doctor Who. Previously, the 20th century seasons of the show had been strangely reluctant to show these meetings. Instead the Doctor typically name dropped those he’d met on unseen travels. But when Doctor Who returned in 2005 it was only three episodes before the Doctor was hobnobbing with Charles Dickens. The latest to join the ranks of historical celebrities like Dickens, Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, Ada Lovelace is Madame Ching in Legend of the Sea Devils.

As with other real life figures guest starring in the Thirteenth Doctor’s adventures, it’s an opportunity to introduce audiences to some of history’s most intriguing, and often unsung, women. But Legend of the Sea Devils barely scratching the surface of Madame Ching’s remarkable life. So let’s take the opportunity for a deeper dive.



At the height of her power Madame Ching commanded a force five times the size of today’s Royal Navy

Those in the west often refer to her as “Madame Ching,” which effectively means simply “Mrs. Ching,” an attempt to translate her title “Ching Shih” (鄭氏) – literally just “wife of Zheng.” Among her own pirates she seems to have been more commonly called “Zheng Yi Sao,” (鄭一嫂) though again that defines her by her marriage to the pirate captain Zheng Yi. She was actually born Shi Yang (石陽). But with even knowing what to call her so complex, what about her history and status?

The Doctor makes passing references to her being one of the formidable and successful pirates of all time. But Madame Ching sailing the seas in a single, crewless, ship belies her great power at the time. In fact at the time of Legend of the Sea Devils historians estimate her to have commanded a force of 400 ships. Organized as six separate fleets, they were crewed by up to 60,000 pirates. For comparison, that’s over five times as many ships, and almost twice as many crew, as the Royal Navy today. No wonder that when seagoing empires came into conflict with her, they didn’t treat it as hunting down a criminal. Rather, they approached it more like war with a sovereign state.


Zheng Yi Sao (Crystal Yu) in Legend of the Sea Devils (c) BBC Studios Doctor Who
Zheng Yi Sao (Crystal Yu) in Legend of the Sea Devils (c) BBC Studios

In 1807 the real Zheng Yi Sao was grappling with her husband’s sudden death, and securing her status as his successor

Legend of the Sea Devils is also set at a very particular point in her history. However it leaves those plot strands curiously undeveloped. Because 1807 is the year when she ascended to command of the Pirate Confederation. Shih Yang had been born in 1775 and had been working in a well known house of ill repute when she met and married Zheng Yi at the age of 26. Zheng Yi came from a long line of pirates and was already a very successful captain. But his new bride revealed a rare gift for strategy and organization, and together they began to absorb the fleets of the other pirates in the region into one vast Pirate Confederation, signing a treaty uniting them in 1805.

But Zheng Yi Sao’s rise to power almost faltered in 1807, the very year of Legend of the Sea Devils. Disaster struck when her husband unexpectedly died at sea in a storm. She and her stepson Zheng Bao moved swiftly to ensure they retained control before any of the other senior pirate leaders could nurture ambitions of their own. Zheng Bao succeeded his father as commander of the Red Flag Fleet, biggest and most powerful of the Confederation’s fleets. But nobody dared doubt who was now the overall ruler of the Pirate Confederation.



Real history offers intriguing hints as to why Madame Ching might not call upon the thousands at her command

In that historical context, it’s irresistible to imagine Madame Ching’s mission in her Doctor Who appearance as part of that race to take power. Her ship flies the Red Flag in a nice nod to history. But she also specifies that it’s the Black Flag Fleet that have kidnapped her crew and sons. What the episode rather glosses over is that the Black Flag Fleet was part of her own forces. So it seems likely writers Ella Wood and Chris Chibnall are picturing a fictional scenario where the Black Flag fleet and its commander Guo Podai (郭婆帶) are essentially testing her new authority.

Which might also explain why she seeks out the treasure of the Flor de la Mar rather than return home to dip into her own huge reserves of treasure. It’s both a matter of pride and political necessity to handle things as quickly and discreetly as possible. While the treasure itself may be seen as equal parts ransom for her sons and tribute to buy back the Black Flag Fleet’s loyalty.

There’s no historical evidence that Guo Podai actually attempted a rebellion against Zheng Yi Sao at this point. But casting them as her antagonists makes a good deal of sense. The Black Flag Fleet was a mighty force, second only to her own Red Flag Fleet. And ultimately it did come into conflict with her, the two enormous fleets meeting in battle in 1810, three years after the events of Legend of the Sea Devils.



Details of her two sons, the “adopting” of Ying Ki, and severed ears all mirror real aspects of Pirate Confederation life

Other elements of her Doctor Who episode mirror her real life policies. Ying Ki’s fate of being essentially adopted by the pirate queen as a member of her crew reflects the habits of pirates at the time. Zheng Bao was actually “adopted” by Zheng Yi at the point of a sword, abducted from his family at 15. The inclusion of a severed ear as part of the Black Flag Fleet’s threat is also appropriate. Cutting off the ears of pirates who broke the code was a major part of Madame Ching’s enforcement of it. The details of her sons and their ages are also historically accurate. Zheng Yingshi (鄭英石) was born in 1803, and Zheng Xiongshi (鄭雄石) was born in 1807.

Meanwhile, although the Pirate Confederation was ruthless in its sacking of ships, towns, and villages, Zheng Yi Sao imposed strict rules about the villages of their own territory. She was wise to the value of keeping on good terms with the locals. Therefore she forbade the raiding of the settlements where the pirates themselves lived, or which kept them supplied with goods. Even casual acts of violence or theft by individual pirates on a drunken night out could draw down the harshest consequences on the offender.

Zheng Yi Sao held her men to strict standards in the treatment of women and children during pirate raids. She sent thousands of people she sent to their deaths over the years, many innocent townsmen defending their homes. But her disdain for the Sea Devil Marsissus’ bloodthirsty massacre of every last man, woman and child in Yi King’s village, and for no real reason or profit, rings true.



After the Legend, what next for Madame Ching?

But what of the life of Zheng Yi Sao after the credits roll on Legend of the Sea Devils? Well, not only did she prevail in taking her late husband’s place as supreme Commander in Chief of the Pirate Confederation but she led it to success on a scale he could scarcely have dreamt of. She even took on the Chinese provincial navy itself, destroying half its strength in battle. This left the Pirate Confederation free to act with near total impunity, and Zheng Yi Sao took full advantage and no town or city in their region was free from her reign of terror. A second attempt by the navy to stop her ended once again in humiliation for the Imperial forces.

Possibly her most thrilling victory was the Battle of the Tiger’s Mouth. China forged an alliance with Portugal in an attempt to finally break the Pirate Confederation but even two empires working together weren’t up to the task of breaking Zheng Yi Sao. Blockading Tung Chung Bay, the two navies trapped the pirate fleet and sent fireships in among them to destroy them. Not only did this fail, with the pirates simply taking control of them and putting the fires out, but a change in the wind caused the fire to instead spread to the navies instead. Zheng Yi Sao eventually led her ships out of the trap without losing a single one.


Madam Ching (CRYSTAL YU) in Legend of the Sea Devils - (C) BBC Doctor Who
Madam Ching (CRYSTAL YU) in Legend of the Sea Devils – (C) BBC Studios – Photographer: James Pardon

Zheng Yi Sao ultimately succeeded in the rarest of pirating achievements: retirement

All pirate careers end, and in 1810 Zheng Yi Sao knew time was running out. The British had now also joined the alliance against her, and the Black Flag Fleet had betrayed her too. But there was no climatic, tragic final battle for the Pirate Confederation. Her keen insight and ability to place strategy above emotion had gotten the infamous Madame Ching to the top. And now it told her to sue for peace rather than wage an unwinnable war.

However, it’s testament to the power and success of this pirate queen that she didn’t end her career dangling from a rope like so many other of history’s famous pirates. Instead she was allowed to simply retire from piracy, pardoned for all her many crimes. She was even allowed to keep most of her treasure and a personal force of 5,000 men and 80 ships. She and Zheng Bao (whom she by then had married) became poachers turned gamekeepers, and entered the pirate hunting game. They even hunted down and defeated their former allies in the Blue Flag Fleet.

When she lost a second husband to the waves in 1822, the former Madame Ching finally put life on the high seas behind her. She returned to her childhood province of Guangdong with her third son Zhang Yulin (張玉麟) and invested her fortune in a new empire as the owner of a gambling house. She lived to the good age of 69, finally dying in 1844, seven years after Queen Victoria ascended to the throne of the British Empire.


Takayo Fischer as a different version of Madame Ching in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (c) Disney
Takayo Fischer as a different version of Madame Ching in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (c) Disney

The great pirate queen would still inspire depictions of ‘Madame Ching’ in many books, films, and TV series centuries later

But she would continue to inspire stories for generations to come. In literature her story has been told in The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate (1935) and The Flower Boat Girl (2012). She’s one of the characters in the manga Afterlife (2006) which depicts her fate post-death as one of the Guardians who protects the souls of the dead from demons. On film she was depicted in the 2003 adaptation of Widow Ching. And she was one of the pirate lords in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007). Meanwhile upcoming science fiction film Mickey7 will be set aboard the spaceship Ching Shih, named in her honour. On television she was one of the characters in the 2015 science fiction show Captain of Destiny (張保仔) about a present day Hong Kong police officer who travels back in time to 1809 and finds herself embroiled in the world of pirates.

And, of course, now Madame Ching has been in Doctor Who. The time uncovering the Legend of the Sea Devils and helping save the entire human world from sinking below the waves forever. It’s some legacy for a woman whose exploits, both good and evil, are sure to be remembered for centuries.


Doctor Who Centenary Special - The Doctor (JODIE WHITTAKER) - BBC Studios - Photos - James Pardon
Doctor Who Centenary Special – The Doctor (JODIE WHITTAKER) – BBC Studios – Photos – James Pardon

Doctor Who returns later this year with the Thirteenth Doctor’s final story


  1. I wouldn’t say Russel invented the celebrity historical figure… certainly made it more a focus though.

    But considering the 4th doctor who story EVER was called “Marco Polo”, and was about the bloke of the same name, I say that saying Russel was the first to do it is a slightly dodgy claim.

    Classic who didn’t do it much, admittedly, but it did happen. See also George Stephenson in “Mark of the Rani” and weirdly enough H.G Wells in “Timelash”.
    I would mention the kings demons for having king john, but that was kamelion in disguise if I recall correctly.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.