[You’re Dead to Me] Zheng Yi Sao

Zheng Yi Sao 26/11/21 by BBC Radio 4

Web player: https://podcastaddict.com/episode/131815543

Episode: http://open.live.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/6/redir/version/2.0/mediaset/audio-nondrm-download/proto/http/vpid/p0b6bc2f.mp3

Greg Jenner and guests Ria Lina and Prof Ronald C. Po navigate the life of one of the most successful pirates to have ever lived, Zheng Yi Sao. During the 18th century Qing dynasty, she led a huge and feared army of pirates, all without a parrot on her shoulder. Research: Will Clayton Script: Emma Nagouse, Will Clayton and Greg Jenner Project manager: Siefe Miyo Edit producer: Cornelius Mendez

Listen Date: 11 January 2022


  • I knew about Mancur Olson’s theory of the stationary bandit and how the Thieves Guild in Discworld was a literary expression of that. But I always thought it was a theory or an idealised model. And here we have Zheng Yi Sao going from being a pirate to running what amounts to an excise tax system in a single lifetime. I am in awe.
  • She started out as a prostitute. Charmed a pirate king and married him. They adopted a son. Pirate king died. She took over the pirate squads and then married the adopted son. The Chinese navy was so weak that she went from piracy to going ‘Ah, fuck it, I’ll just charge the salt fleet fixed charges to let them pass from the North Vietnamese sea back to China.’ And then she retired.
  • Very Online Leftism is fond of talking about how the Pirates of the Carribean were an egalitarian commune where all spoils of piracy were equally shared. Zheng Yi Sao was having none of that. The individual pirate would get 20%, the general fund got 80%. And people get upset about the Apple Store charging 15% to 30% of a developer’s take.
  • I read somewhere recently (Noah Smith’s Twitter feed?) that TikTok is even worse, and takes a 90% cut on what influencers make through Tiktok. Clearly, Chinese commission fees leaving gig workers a pittance has a long and illustrious history.
  • Speaking of gig workers, this has the interesting tidbit that piracy was a part time job that fishermen took up in the off-season for fishing. Fisherman by summer, pirate by winter. Doesn’t have the ring of billionaire playboy by day, crimefighting vigilante by night. But at least it was fact.
  • The episode also talks about how the pirates simply putting up posters on the docks that they were planning to raid the port would cause complete terror and mayhem, without an actual attack. That is the kind of effect I aspire to.
  • All the talk about South China pirates also made me remember the gloriously over the top Jackie Chan starrer Project A. Though apparently it’s set almost a century after Zhen Yi Sao’s active life of piracy.
  • Also mentioned, that the pirates would use a long barreled musket that needed one pirate to provide his shoulders as a mount / tripod and two to pull the trigger (or was it the other way around?). Maybe one as a mount, one to pull the trigger, and one to aim?
  • The pirates would also swallow a gunpowder cocktail to get high before attacking / boarding. Fun.

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