Madame Ching: who was real pirate in Doctor Who: Legend of the Sea Devils Easter special - when is it on TV?

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Madame Ching - played by Crystal Yu in Legend of the Sea Devils - is considered one of the most successful pirates in history

Doctor Who’s Easter special, Legend of the Sea Devils, sees the Doctor encounter real-life historical pirate Madame Ching. She’s considered to be one of the most successful pirates in history, at one point commanding a fleet of over 400 ships and as many as 60,000 crew – she’s also one of relatively few pirates to retire successfully and live to old age.

Despite that, though, she’s perhaps not as well-known as you might expect - in fact probably the most obscure historical figure featured in Doctor Who over the past few years. With that in mind, here’s everything you need to know about Madame Ching, and the lost treasure she’s searching for in Legend of the Sea Devils.

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Who was Madame Ching?

Crystal Yu as Madame Ching in Legend of the Sea Devils (Credit: James Pardon/BBC Studios)Crystal Yu as Madame Ching in Legend of the Sea Devils (Credit: James Pardon/BBC Studios)
Crystal Yu as Madame Ching in Legend of the Sea Devils (Credit: James Pardon/BBC Studios) | BBC Studios/James Pardon

Madame Ching – alternately Ching Shih, or sometimes Zheng Yi Sao – was a 19th century Chinese pirate. Her own piracy career began when she married the pirate Zheng Yi (‘Zheng Yi Sao’ was an honorific, meaning his wife) – when he died, Madame Ching took over their fleet in his absence, and significantly expanded their operations in turn.

When was she alive and active as a pirate?

Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, John Bishop, and Crystal Yu in Legend of the Sea Devils (Credit: James Pardon/BBC Studios)Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, John Bishop, and Crystal Yu in Legend of the Sea Devils (Credit: James Pardon/BBC Studios)
Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, John Bishop, and Crystal Yu in Legend of the Sea Devils (Credit: James Pardon/BBC Studios) | BBC Studios/James Pardon

Madame Ching was born in 1775 and died in 1844, around 68 years old. Her pirate career lasted a little under ten years, beginning in 1801 and drawing to a close in 1810, when she negotiated a surrender to the government that allowed her to retain some of her fleet and avoid criminal charges.

For comparison, Blackbeard was only active as a pirate for two years: joining another captain’s crew in 1716, capturing his own ship in 1717, and dying in 1718. Meanwhile, Henry Every (depicted in Doctor Who by Hugh Bonneville in 2011) was similarly only active for a handful of years, beginning his pirate career in 1694 and disappearing without a trace in 1696.

What did she do as a pirate?

A photo of Crystal Yu as Madame Ching in a swordfight, with an insert in the lower right hand corner of an 1836 drawing of Madame Ching in a sword fight (Credit L-R: James Pardon/BBC Studios; Public Domain)A photo of Crystal Yu as Madame Ching in a swordfight, with an insert in the lower right hand corner of an 1836 drawing of Madame Ching in a sword fight (Credit L-R: James Pardon/BBC Studios; Public Domain)
A photo of Crystal Yu as Madame Ching in a swordfight, with an insert in the lower right hand corner of an 1836 drawing of Madame Ching in a sword fight (Credit L-R: James Pardon/BBC Studios; Public Domain) | James Pardon/BBC Studios

A lot of the usual pirate stuff – looting and pillaging and so on. What Madame Ching is remembered for in particular is the scale of her operation, credited with a key role in helping Zheng Yi unite disparate pirates into one larger confederation in 1805.

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When Madame Ching took over the confederation in 1807 after her husband’s death, she mediated the different factions amongst the six fleets (the red, black, blue, white, yellow, and purple fleets), gaining a reputation as someone with a particular talent for leadership. She went on to expand the fleet in 1809, personally taking command of a further 500 ships.

When she surrendered in 1810, Madame Ching personally negotiated government pardons for her and her crew, as well as permission to retain a private personal fleet with her second husband Zheng Bao. After that, she retired from piracy and became the proprietor of a gambling house, which she managed until her death in 1844.

What’s the lost treasure of the Flor De La Mar?

The Sea Devils have been given a style change for their returnThe Sea Devils have been given a style change for their return
The Sea Devils have been given a style change for their return | BBC Studios/James Pardon

Legend of the Sea Devils finds Madame Ching searching for the lost treasure of the Flora Del Mar (and, in doing so, accidentally unleashing the Sea Devils).

The Flor de la Mar (which translates to “flower of the sea”) was a Portuguese ship which played a key role in different colonial conquests. The ship sank in 1511 while carrying a vast amount of stolen treasure from Malacca, and it’s still yet to be recovered today.

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Who plays Madame Ching in Legend of the Sea Devils?

Crystal Yu as Madame Ching in Legend of the Sea Devils (Credit: James Pardon/BBC Studios)Crystal Yu as Madame Ching in Legend of the Sea Devils (Credit: James Pardon/BBC Studios)
Crystal Yu as Madame Ching in Legend of the Sea Devils (Credit: James Pardon/BBC Studios) | BBC Studios/James Pardon

Madame Ching is played by Crystal Yu, an actor probably still best known for playing doctor Lily Chao on Casualty from 2013 – 2017. Otherwise, you might also recognise her from roles in Welsh drama Keeping Faith, Channel 4’s Chimerica, or the Amazon sci-fi anthology Soulmates.

Yu is one of relatively few people to play Madame Ching across film and television. Characters inspired by her appear in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (played by Takayo Fisher) and Captain of Destiny (played by Maggie Shiu), but otherwise the only other straightforward depiction of Madame Ching is the 2003 film Singing Behind Screens.

Where can I find out more about her?

You might be interested in the Madame Ching-focused episode of Greg Jenner’s history podcast You’re Dead to Me, which is currently available on BBC Sounds.

The Doctor Who Easter special Legend of the Sea Devils airs on BBC One at 7:10pm on Sunday 17 April. It’ll also be available on BBC iPlayer.

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