Cheng Yi or Zheng Yi (also known as Cheng I and Cheng Yud) was one of the most powerful pirate captains that operated in the Chinese Sea during late 18th century. He was born in 1765, and at the end of that century, he grew his business of piracy to such a high level that he even forged a strong connection with Mac Dynasty that then ruled China. His main base of operations was Canton (Guangdong) where his large fleet of pirate ships preyed upon numerous merchant shipping lanes, although he did not hesitate to move his fleet across other parts of the South Chinese sea. One of his most nefarious feats happened when he disturbed shipping lanes near the shores of Vietnam when Mac Dynasty sought to take control of it.
The love life of Cheng I was very complicated since he was unable to marry his true love, son of Tonkan fisherman named Chang Paou. Since Chang Paou was much younger than Cheng Yi, the pirate captain elected to adopt him as his son officially and managed to remain close and romantically involved with them that way. He awarded him with full inheritance rights and even command of the part of his large fleet.
However, that was not the end of the romantic troubles for Cheng Yi. Seeing the rise of the nefarious and highly capable Madame Ching Shih (also known as Shih Yan), Cantonese brother owner and commander of her pirate fleet, both of them elected to strengthen their businesses and marry each other. With their combined fleets and the smart political decisions of Madame Ching Shih, in 1804 their mighty pirate fleet grew to the impressive size of 1800 ships and nearly 150 thousand pirates. This alliance of pirates was known as “Red Flag Fleet”, the largest sea pirate fleet in the history of our world and a formidable force that not even Chinese royal family had the resources to tackle head on.
The struggle for power within the dysfunctional family where Cheng I, his lover Chang Paou and his wife Ching Shih all shared the same bed intensified even further after the death of Cheng I on 16 November 1807. He drowned after falling overboard in Vietnam, but many to this day suspect that his death was not accidental and was in fact orchestrated by his wife. After his death, Ching Shih and Chang Paou struggled to remain in control of the large pirate fleet that eventually splintered into six large squadrons. After managing to secure royal pardons from Qing Emperor Jiaqing, they both retired. Madame Ching Shih went back to controlling brothels, gambling, and smuggling until her natural death in 1844 at the age of 69, while young Chang Paou became commander of the Imperial Fleet and hunted the remains of his old pirate alliance until he died in his late 30s. He is today remembered as the only member of his famous love triangle that is viewed in positive light.