Manshuk Mametova – One-Woman Army

This week I’m taking you to Soviet Kazakhstan, when World War II was just beginning, and one girl was determined to fight for her Motherland. Even though she was rejected at first and later only assigned clerk duty, she taught herself how to use a machine gun and eventually became Hero of the Soviet Union. That was not only the highest military honor, but she was the first Kazakh woman to receive it. Her name is Manshuk Mametova and I want to take you along on the wild ride that was her life. 

In 1922 in Zhaksus, a small village in the steppe of the Ural Region in Kazakhstan, a shoe maker and his wife welcomed their fifth child into the world, a daughter they named Mansia. Little Manshuk, as her mother affectionately called her, spent her childhood learning to ride before she could even walk and spending long nights around the yurt’s hearth, listening to stories about heroes and heroines, adventures and fairytales. Sometimes her aunt Amina would visit from Alma-Ata, and tell stories of a city built of stone. When she was around three or five years old, her parents sent her to live with her aunt as it was custom. (Well, it was custom to send the child to its grandparents, but they had died already, so she was sent to her aunt instead.) It seems that soon after her parents died, or maybe they died before and she was adopted then – sources are unclear. What is certain however, is that her aunt took her with her and she grew up in the capital. 

Her childhood in Alma-Ata seems to have been a very happy one, filled with the scent of apple trees growing all over the city. Her aunt was a strict but loving woman and every word of appreciation would make the little girl beam with joy. And when she was old enough to go to school, she soon felt like she had gained a second family. She loved to learn and the other girls loved her for her enthusiasm and kindness. In the picture you can see her on the top right with two of her classmates. As the years passed by, Manshuk learned more and more about her nation and learned to love its vast beauty. Especially Moscow stole her heart and she would dream of walking over the Red Square for years to come. 

After graduating, she entered a medical school program and later the Alma-Ata Medical Institute. At some point in her medical education, she took a job at the Secretariat of the Council of People’s Commissars, which aimed to fuse Kazakh culture with Soviet values. Life was good. She had a job she liked, friends and family she adored and soon, soon she would finally see Moscow! It was the Summer of 1941 and 18-year-old Manshuk was planning to go see a sports parade. But it was not meant to be. Nazi Germany had bombed Sevastopol, Odessa and Kiev and was now approaching Moscow. 

Even though the war was still far from Alma-Ata, Manshuk was one of the first to volunteer at the local recruitment office. Inspired not only by her love for the Soviet Union and her country, but also by the countless stories she grew up with, Manshuk wanted to take an active part in defending her homeland.

Even though the Red Army accepted women into their ranks, her request to go to the frontlines was rejected. But she persisted. It took one year until she was finally accepted into the Army – however only as a desk clerk instead of a warrior. It was a first step though and so Manshuk became a secretary and later a nurse as well. But still she dreamt of being a warrior. And so, between her administrative duties and her work in the local field hospital, she taught herself how to shoot a machine gun. Eventually she was asked to show her skills to her superior and she didn’t miss a single target. Impressed, her commander assigned her to the 100th Rifle Brigade and finally, in October 1942, she was on her way to the frontlines.

Her Regiment fought well and soon Manshuk had earned not only the rank of Senior Sergeant but also the respect and trust of her comrades. Never did she part with her beloved gun. But it wasn’t only battle that happened on the front lines but life as well. Manshuk made friends and shared stories of home with them. Sometimes she would get a letter or a parcel from home and it would remind her of the sunny days in an apple-scented city that she so passionately defended. However she did find something on the front that she didn’t back home: she fell in love. In a letter to her sister she wrote about fellow machine gunner Nurken Khusainov and how it was impossible now to act on her feelings. Apparently Nurken thought the same and so it remained unfulfilled. For their next assignment would mean death for both of them. 

On October 15, 1943, Manshuk and her regiment fought to liberate the city of Nevel on Russia’s western border – a difficult battle from the get-go, as the Germans occupied higher ground. The Soviets still weren’t able to advance after hours of battle, but continued to suffer heavy casualties, Nurken among them. To find a better spot to attack and to give the Germans another front to worry about, Manshuk and another machine gunner broke away from their unit. Soon they found what they were looking for: a small hill on the flank of the German army with a barricade for machine gunners on top. They quietly killed the enemy soldiers occupying the post and opened fire. The unexpected attack broke the German counter-offensive and finally the Soviets were able to advance.

Crawling between three different machine gun posts the two gunners relentlessly fired on the enemy, trying to avoid being hit themselves. At some point Manshuk was knocked out by a mortar shell, but regained consciousness and continued her assault. More than once her comrade asked her to retreat, but she refused. She knew that as soon as they stopped shooting they will be overrun and everyone else will die as well. The battle had waged for an hour when a grenade hit their post, immediately killing her comrade and mortally wounding her. Even so, Manshuk would not let go of her gun. With her last strength and nothing to lose, she occupied the best possible position and continued shooting until her last breath. It might have been her who finally turned the tides of the battle and without her the Red Army would not have been able to liberate Nevel.

Her body was recovered after the battle, her hands still clutching her gun, and buried in the city’s cemetery. For her bravery, she was posthumously awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest honor in the USSR. There are also a bunch of statues, one in Nevel for example and one in Almaty (that’s what Alma-Ata is called now), and streets and schools are named after her (including her former High School) and there are songs about her! Even though she wasn’t able to return to her beloved hometown, I think Manshuk Mametova would have been proud to know she is remembered for making a difference. And maybe that she now has her own folk tales as well. 

image credits:

all images via

1: Manshuk Mametova with Aunt Amina, 1935
2: Manshuk Mametova, 1937
3: Portrait of Manshuk Mametova (undated, ca. 1942/43)
4: Monument to sniper Aliya Moldagulova and Manshuk Mametova (r.) in Almaty, Kazakhstan

Li Qingzhao – Protector of History

Today I want to bring you a story of a happy marriage between two bookworms. They were collecting historical artifacts and writing each other love letters …until they lost their home and most of their beloved collection. And then her husband died too. It’s a lot. This is a story of a picture perfect life turning to ashes, but it’s also a story of resilience and protecting what we love. This is the story of Li Qingzhao. 

Born around 1084 in Zhangqiu, China as the first child of a family of scholars and government officials, Qingzhao had a great start in life! Her father was the headmaster of the capital’s university and saw to it that all of his children, one boy and three girls, received a thorough education. The family seems to have been fairly progressive as the girls’ feet were not bound, a popular custom throughout China at the time. Furthermore when Qingzhao started writing in her teens, she was taken seriously by her family and encouraged to pursue her passion. And so she developed into an intelligent and outgoing young woman.

When she was 18 years old, she entered an arranged marriage with Zhao Mingcheng, who was 23 years old and a poet as well. I’m a bit confused as to why he was chosen for her, as their parents had different opinions in politics (her father was a conservative, while his father was a reformist) and they were not particularly wealthy. But it turned out to be a wonderful match. Although Mingchen was often gone for work and they were never particularly wealthy, they were very happy. Both loved history and the little money they had, they used to buy statues, paintings, calligraphies and reproductions of historical inscriptions. They would spend hours upon hours examining the pieces and cataloguing them. Whenever they could, they would write each other little love letters – with Qingzhao being the better poet. And during their tea ceremonies they would play a game in which whoever could name the origin of a quote was the one to drink first. They were very much in love. 

Their happy married life took a little hit three years later, when not only Qingzhao’s father died, but so did Mingcheng’s two years later. There was some political tension involved and so the couple decided to lay low for a while and move out into the country, located in what is now Shandong Province. In favor of acquiring new artifacts, the couple lived a minimalist life and often went out themselves in search for new items for their collection. For the longer trips however, Qingzhao was left in their home and spent her time writing …and drinking a fair share. Many of her poems from that time are about loneliness and intoxication – a scandal for a woman of her status, as these topics had been reserved for prostitutes, not honorable wives! It’s not like she cared about that though. 

Generally they seem to have been happy in their secluded little life though, and even when the political climate calmed down after five years in their new home, they decided to stay there. They never had any children and there is no word of that in neither her nor his writings, so I assume they didn’t really care. That’s highly unconventional as it was an important part of Chinese culture to continue the family line. Instead of doing that however, they amassed one of the most valuable collections of historical artifacts in all of China. And for nine more years, they lived a quiet life, content in each other’s company and surrounded by their biggest passion. 

Until in 1121, Mingcheng was ordered to move to Laizhou to occupy a political post. Even though this time Qingzhao could come with him, it meant they had to leave their beloved home. And that wasn’t the end of it. In 1127, the capital of the Song Dynasty, Kaifeng, fell to the neighboring Jin. The government had been buying peace so far, but eventually that wasn’t enough anymore.

Although Qingzhao was advocating for a strong offense against the invaders, in the end she had no choice but pack her stuff and flee. And packing she did. With her husband, she hand-picked every little piece to take with them, ending up with fifteen (15!) carts of the most valuable artifacts in their collection. Still that meant ten more rooms (!) left behind for certain destruction. 

Arriving in Nanjing, the two lovers parted ways. Mingcheng had to see to the funeral of his mother who had just died, while Qingzhao was determined to save whatever she could from their old family home in Shandong Province. Travelling against the stream of refugees, she finally reached her destination. However the Jin were fast approaching, so she had to leave with only a few pieces, seeing her beloved collection burn behind her. 

After a long journey she returned to Nanjing where she was reunited with her much-missed husband. Together they travelled south on the Yangtze River to find a safe place for their prized collection. However their time together was cut short once again when Mingcheng was ordered to take a political post once again. Shortly after the lovers parted ways, he fell sick with malaria. As soon as Qingzhao heard, she left for Nanjing where he was staying. She didn’t even think about her collection that she went through so much to safe, she took off to see her husband again. 

She did arrive in time to see him again before he died. According to custom it would be the eldest son writing the epitaph, but as there was no son, Qingzhao wrote Mingcheng’s. A final little love letter. 

Now Qingzhao was 45. She was completely alone, homeless and didn’t even really have a solid country to return to. After burying her beloved husband with all honors, she recovered her second love, her artifacts, so at least she wasn’t broke. But once again the Jin were not far and she had to flee again. Her journey took her through all of Southern China and gradually she had to sell more and more of her collection until almost nothing was left. With all the refugees, finding her family was impossible and she had nowhere to go. After three years the new borders were finally relatively established and Qingzhao moved to the new capital of Hangzhou in Eastern China. 

In the same year, just after the mourning period had passed, she apparently remarried (although this is not 100% verified.) Another highly unorthodox move as Confucianist law forbids widows from marrying again. I can only guess as to why she chose to do this. Maybe it was the longing for stability and a home, maybe the wish for another companion, someone to share her passion with. Her new husband however was not that. Not only was he far from being on her level, intellectually speaking, but it appears he also harmed her physically. Not even 100 days into marriage, Qingzhao demanded a divorce. In another unorthodox move, she took her case to court – and she won! Her ex-husband was banished and she never looked for another. 

Instead she threw herself into writing. Once so outgoing and unconventional, her poems are now about her lost home, her lost love and her lost happiness. Also a lot more about drinking. But her intellect and abilities as a poet didn’t suffer and even though she seems to have become severely depressed, she didn’t give up entirely. 

After five years, in 1134, she published a monumental catalogue of antique inscriptions in bronze and stone which her husband had assembled. She herself wrote the foreword (and probably helped with cataloguing too, but she never took credit.) It is still a recognized educational book on the subject. All the while she continued to write poems criticizing the Dynasty’s politics regarding the new borders. Her last known poems were written in 1143, when she was almost 60, then she vanishes from history. 

It is unknown when exactly she died, but it must have been around 1155. But she isn’t forgotten. In China she remains one of the greatest poets in history, even though most of her writing has been lost to time and war. There is even a crater on Venus named after her, as well as one on Mercury! And although she couldn’t protect her collection, who knows how many pieces of Chinese history in our museums went through the hands of Li Qingzhao?!

image credits:

1: Li Qingzhao and Mingcheng Zhao (presumably), artist unknown – Link
If you happen to know the creator, please let me know, I couldn’t find them!

2: Li Qingzhao’s “Summer Judgment · Life as a Master” illustrated by Wang Xijing in 1990 – Link

3: Wu Shanming: “Poet Li Qingzhao” – Link

4:  Li Qingzhao statue at Li Qingzhao Memorial, Jinan by User Gisling in Wikimedia Commons – Link
The inscription reads: “Li Qingzhao 1084-1156”

Enheduanna – The World’s First Author

Did you know that the first author ever was a woman? Well, we can’t say for certain as for a long time all writing was anonymous. But the first person to ever put their name on their work was today’s heroine: Enheduanna, Sumerian High Priestess. As far as we can tell, her opus encompasses 42 temple hymns and a number of longer texts, representing the first human attempt to compose a systematic theology. Isn’t that amazing?!

Enheduanna’s story takes us way back in time, to the ancient city of Ur in 2300 BC. Given how little information we have about people from that time, even royalty, it is fascinating how much we know about her. So let’s get started!

She was the daughter of one of history’s earliest empire builders, Sargon the Great, king of Akkadia. And great was his conquest indeed: his reign extended from all of southern Mesopotamia to parts of Syria, Anatolia and western Iran. In the late 23rd to early 22nd century BC, he incorporated a number of Sumerian city states into his kingdom and this is where our knowledge of Enheduanna’s life begins. While the Akkadians and Sumerians were culturally not quite that dissimilar and worshipped the same gods, their languages still differed and tensions arose. So Sargon appointed his daughter High Priestess of the city of Ur. That way she could keep an eye on the population and exert Akkadian influence.

The position of High Priestess was a powerful one indeed as the temples were not only religious places but social and economical centres as well. And the Ziggurat of Ur was one of the most significant temples in the Mesopotamian valley – in the picture you can see the modern reconstruction behind the ruins of the original.

Enheduanna’s religious duties included caring for the statues of their gods, offering sacrifices (animals, but also jewellery and produce) and interpreting dreams and omens. She and her staff were also responsible for cataloguing astronomical movements, a scientific process, although it is unclear how exactly they did this. Furthermore she controlled quite a large plot of land, employing an array of people such as fishermen, farmers and shepherds. Her land brought in a good amount of money, so the temple also functioned as a bank – which was overseen by Enheduanna as well. On top of that she also had to maintain relationships with the other temples in the area, advocating for her deities but also for her father.

I’d like to get into her daily religious duties a bit more because her role and status were tightly bound to her position of High Priestess. You can see her performing those alongside her staff on the disc in the picture; Enheduanna is the one in the middle with the frilly dress.

As High Priestess she was known as the “Wife of Nanna,” the Akkadian moon god and served him as well as his divine wife Ningal and their daughter Inanna. And she seemed to have had a real soft spot for the latter, starting a whole cult revolving around her which eventually made Inanna one of the pantheon’s highest-ranking deities. The temple was adorned with statues of the gods which were bathed and dressed ritually every day by the priestesses, but not before they themselves had cleansed themselves thoroughly and brought their offerings. Once a year, Enheduanna took part in a ritual of sacred marriage, where she lay with a mortal representative of Nanna. Another theory is that Enheduanna represented Inanna, a goddess of love and fertility, in this rite. Whether it involved literal intercourse or not is unclear, but is is far from improbable – there are a few lines of poetry that strongly suggest a physical component to these rituals. Certain is that this union was intended as some sort of blessing, ensuring the land’s fertility and the temple’s prosperity.

Now that her background is laid out, let’s get to the interesting part: her poetry. Yes, I too am wondering where she found the time to write besides all her duties and responsibilities. And yes, it gets even more interesting than ritualistic sex.

I already said before that Enheduanna wrote a total of 42 temple hymns – for comparison, Shakespeare “only” wrote 37 plays, and her count does not even include her other texts! To be fair, it might be that other authors used her fame and put her name under their own manuscripts but analyzing the style, it is pretty likely that most if not all of them were written by Enheduanna herself. Her work is generally divided into these temple hymns and her other texts which are mainly poems to her favourite goddess Inanna. In the picture you can see that they carved their letters into clay (the depicted text is not by Enheduanna though, I couldn’t find a plate that was certainly hers.) The former were means of communication between the temples and were not only used for religious exchange but also as propaganda for King Sargon, meant to dissolve tensions between the two people of the kingdom. However these texts are so lyrical in nature that they are unlikely to be purely political in nature – and if they basically were political pamphlets, why should she have signed them with her name when this was unheard of?

Here is why: she was proud of her work! It was not that she felt immortalized in her poems, or at least she never mentioned if she did, but she was fascinated by the fact that she created something entirely new and she took pride in it.

This kind of self-reflection was also completely new to poetry and writing in general. It wasn’t until more than 700 years later that the likes of Homer and Sappho started on that path – just to put things into perspective. Before Enheduanna there was no clear distinction between emotional and physical experiences, between mortal and divine in writing; she was the first to write about her inner turmoils and thoughts, marking the beginning of the human understanding of self.

Now back to an episode of her life when she was basically evicted from her temple and replaced by a man called Lugalunne, who was either a priest as well or a foreign king. Anyways, Enheduanna was not amused and wrote one of her most dramatic poems, one of those addressed to Inanna:

truly for your gain / you drew me toward
 my holy quarters
 / I 
the High Priestess / 
Enheduanna /
 there I raised the ritual basket 
/ there I sang the shout of joy /
 but that man cast me among the dead / 
I am not allowed in my rooms 
/ gloom falls on the day
 / light turns leaden 
/ shadows close in 
/ dreaded southstorm cloaks the sun 
/ he wipes his spit-soaked hand 
/ on my honey-sweet mouth 
/ my beautiful image 
fades under dust
 / what is happening to me
 / O Suen [i.e. Inanna] 
/ what is this with Lugalanne?… / he gave me the ritual dagger of mutilation / he said / “it becomes you.”

The remarkable thing about this poem is that it was the first of its kind! Today we are used to emotions wrapped in words, but this was the first time that was ever done, more than 4000 years ago! And it’s poetic too! I’m not sure by the way if there truly was bodily mutilation involved, if it was a specific ritual or just another metaphor. Her exile however does not seem to have lasted very long as in the next part of her story she was already back home.

Another interesting part of her writing is the religious shift we are able to learn about from her diaries. As I already said, before her time the divine was one with the worldly, god was everything. This understanding however began to shift towards the belief that god is IN everything, a small but significant difference that implies that god transcends the worldly instead of being one with it. And Enheduanna did not like that notion, so she composed a poem (which is pretty long so a summary has to do): While Inanna was a relatively “young” goddess, she still stood for the old way, uniting the contradictions of life; the lover and the warrior, birth and death, growth and destruction. When the mountain Ebih defied her, she unleashed all her fury upon him, completely destroying her adversary.

What makes this story so fascinating is that Ebih is described as an almost utopian place with lambs and lions living in peace (bible, anyone?) and Inanna flat-out bulldozes it which Enheduanna is obviously more than okay with. Why is that? Because it is unnatural. Nature is not merciful an harmonious, there are contrasts, there is good and bad, light and dark. Eternal peace does not fit into this world view and Enheduanna has Inanna annihilate it entirely.

Obviously that opinion didn’t stick and was eventually replaced by a more distinctive view on religion and the gods – although Inanna did stick around for around 2000 years still, donning the names of Ishtar and Cybele among others. Ironically it was Enheduanna who lay the groundwork for this development. Had she not began her journey of self-awareness people might not have differentiated between divine and worldly for another 1000 years or so and the old gods would have survived a little longer. On the other hand, is there nothing divine in creating something that never was before? And in this aspect maybe Enheduanna was not all wrong.

Do you want to read all of her poems now? Because I did!

Unfortunately there is no complete collection on the internet, but you can find a selection of her temple hymns here (click) and there is one of her Inanna poems here (click.)
You can also hear one of her texts in the original Sumerian here (click and scroll down to the bottom.)

image credits:

Ruins: Ruins in the Town of Ur, Southern Iraq by M. Lubinski in Wikimedia Commons – Link
Disc: Penn Museum, British Museum/University Museum Expedition to Ur, Iraq, 1926 (B16665)
Clay Tablets: CDLI – Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, photo by Thomas Fish, 1982 (P212927)

Indra Devi – Mother of Western Yoga

Once again this week’s heroine is a more recent one as she only died fifteen years ago, but as she did die at age 102 I felt like including her wasn’t breaking the “historical” criteria: Meet Indra Devi, who played a big role in bringing yoga to the Western world.

Born as Eugenie Peterson in Riga, Latvia in 1899 to a Swedish banker and a Russian actress and noblewoman, she was sent to study theater in Moscow once she had finished school. There, at age 15, she discovered India’s poetic philosophical texts and first encountered yoga. This left her so impressed, she promised herself to go to India one day. When the family had to flee from the Bolsheviks around 1920, Eugenie ended up in Germany, where she joined a theater group with which she toured all over Europe. This took her to a congress in the Netherlands where she heard ancient Sanskrit chants for the first time, leaving her in awe once more.

The chance to travel to India should come, when in 1927, banker Hermann Bolm proposed to her. Fearing that she would never fulfill her dream once she married, she accepted only if he agreed to pay her journey to India before the wedding. And he agreed. When she returned three months later, she gave Hermann back his ring, sold all her valuables and returned to the country of her heart. There she continued her career as an actress, adopting the stage name of Indra Devi. And in 1930 she was to meet (and marry) the man of her heart, Czech diplomat in Bombay Jan Strakaty. The pair became popular in social circles quickly, being invited to all the important events. Indra defied the social norms, making friends throughout the castes and even befriended Mahatma Gandhi.

It was through her husband that she met the Maharaja of Mysore, whose palace included a yoga school where Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya taught. She approached the famous yogi but was refused for being a Westerner and on top of that a woman. With the intervention of the Maharaja, he relented and she was accepted …reluctantly. This made her the first female yoga pupil ever and the first foreigner Krishnamacharya taught, the first Western woman in an Indian ashram. Determined to exceed expectations, Indra met every challenge with resilience. Long hours of practice, dietary restrictions, denying herself a source of warmth – she conquered them all. Finally her efforts were rewarded and Krishnamacharya took her on as a private student. He was impressed.

In 1939 her husband was transferred to China, which meant Indra had to leave her country. Encouraged by Krishnamacharya, she opened her own yoga school in Shanghai, the first one in China. It attracted students from all over the world who began calling her Mataji, Hindi for “mother.” 

After World War II was over, the couple returned to India where Indra wrote her first book: “Yoga, the Art of Reaching Health and Happiness.” It is believed to be the first book about yoga written by a Westerner that was published in India (she also was the first Westerner to teach yoga in India.)

After her husband died in 1947, she decided to go to California and opened a yoga school in Hollywood one year later. Determined to spread the knowledge of yoga, she persuaded many famous people of her time to attend her lessons (on the right she’s pictured with movie star Eva Gabor in 1960) and wrote two more books which were translated into ten different languages to be sold in 26 countries. She herself was fluent in five languages: English, Spanish, Russian, French and German.

With her second marriage to Dr. Sigfrid Knauer, she became an American citizen and officially changed her name to Indra Devi. She went on to travel to Moscow in 1960, holding a speech before the Kremlin, convincing them to allow the practice of yoga in the Soviet Union. She started a new studio in Tecate, Mexico in 1963 but closed it after her husband died in 1977. And again she relocated, this time to Sri Lanka. But she couldn’t keep still for long and began travelling the world to teach and lecture.

When she arrived in Argentina in 1983, she fell in love with a country again and finally decided to settle. Her style of Sai Yoga (named after guru Sathya Sai Baba, whose teachings she followed) was immensely popular in Buenos Aires and fellow Sai Baba devotees invited her to stay and teach – which she did. In 1988 the Fundacion Indra Devi was founded in her honor and one year later she celebrated her 100th birthday with more than 3000 guests. Despite her old age, she never stopped travelling, albeit not as frantically as before. After a stroke in 2002 however, her health deteriorated and she died peacefully on April 25. Her ashes were scattered into the Río de la Plata.

Today, the Fundacion Indra Devi has seen some 25,000 students pass through the doors of their six studios in Buenos Aires. She was a woman who kept following her dream and made it come true, leading a fulfilling life and being an inspiration to others.

image credits: Fundación Indra Devi

Zheng Yi Sao – Pirate Queen of the Qing Dynasty

Did you know the world’s most powerful pirate was a woman? Her name was Zheng Yi Sao, or Madame Ching, who lived in the Qing Dynasty of ancient China and at one point commanded a fleet of about 1800 ships with more than 70000 men, terrifying the Imperial Navy. You can see her on the right, this is one of the very few authentic images of her. But let’s start at the beginning.

She was born on the coast of Southern China and like many women there, she later worked as a prostitute on one of the many swimming brothels. 1801, when she was 26 years old, the already quite powerful pirate captain Zheng Wenxian asked for her hand in marriage and bought her free. At first they went to Vietnam, where the pirate life was a lucrative one. The Zhengs shared every aspects of their lives – yes, the fighting too – life was good.

Unfortunately after just one year the pirates who had been allies in Vietnam, now found themselves competing for the limited ressources of the Chinese coastline again. That’s when the Zhengs started to work on a pirate alliance. In 1804/05, they had established a confederation of six pirate leaders, each commanding a fleet and all under their supreme command. Well, officially HIS supreme command, but that would change when he drowned in a Taifun in 1907, aged 42. Without hesitation Zheng Yi Sao assumed leadership – surprisingly without any uproar and soon she had earned the nickname “Dragonlady.”
And she led well, delegating the command of her fleet to her adoptive son and lover (ignoring both, the mourning tradition and the incest taboo – which still did not diminish her authority) and implementing a strict code of rules. By 1808 (when she was 33) her alliance had brought the whole coast of the Guangdong province under their control (the red part in the picture), so that’s quite a bit of coastline they controlled there) and ships faring the Southern Chinese waters had to pay them for protection – so basically all the ships because the vast majority of trade routes went South. The salt and opium trade had also become a pirate monopoly.
And now the emperor finally had enough. The pirate problem was obviously out of control and his military offences kept failing. So in 1809 he took the desperate measure of forbidding all maritime traffic, all goods had to be transported by land. But well, hungry pirates are not necessarily tamer than well-fed ones, so that plan kinda backfired. Realizing the coast was dead, they began sailing the rivers, advancing into the inland. They frightened the people so bad, that they killed every stranger on sight, fearing him to be a disguised pirate. With no one left to oppose them, it was now time for inner conflicts. Gu Podai, the captain of the second-most powerful fleet in Zheng Yi Sao’s alliance (after hers), was not happy with the quick rise of her adoptive son and lover (whom she had appointed captain of her fleet), taking orders from someone so much younger and less accomplished did not go with his honor. And there was an opportunity: because the Imperial Navy was rendered completely powerless, the authorities offered rewards for pirated denouncing their trade. So Gu Podai left and he and his feared Black Fleet joined the Imperial Navy – not without a generous “compensation” of course. Not a critical change for the pirates but life had become uncomfortable. Zheng Yi Sao had to decide now: continue her pirate life or give up now, as long as the rewards were high? She made her decision and spoke before the governor on April 17, 1810 and three days later surrendered herself, 17318 pirates, 226 ships and 1315 cannons. Then she and her frenemy Gu Pao ran down the remaining pirates. Now the time for surrender was over, no more rewards. The power had shifted – once more thanks to Zheng Yi Sao. That same year the pirate queen retired, aged 35, and lived a happy and relatively quiet life. Just as quietly and entirely unobstructed she led a smuggling operation for opium and a gambling house. In 1844 she died in peace at 69 years old.
While she is certainly not an entirely forgotten “heroine” – I mean, she was in Pirates of the Caribbean – not many people know how powerful she really was and how she defied the rules of society to find happiness for herself. So this is why in my opinion she was the perfect opener for this project – a prostitute from the flower boats becoming a pirate queen, no, THE pirate queen.

image credits:

portrait: found at Ancient Origins
map: That’s Magazine – The Explainer, HK Focus Media Group
movie still: from “Pirates of the Caribbean – At World’s End,” 2007 – Link