10 Facts About Ching Shih, China’s Pirate Queen | History Hit

10 Facts About Ching Shih, China’s Pirate Queen

An 18th century engraving of Ching Shih. From 'History of Pirates of all Nations', published in 1836.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The fearsome female pirate Ching Shih lived and pillaged during China’s Qing Dynasty, and is considered to have been the most successful pirate in history.

Born into poverty before becoming a sex worker, she was plucked out of relative obscurity by Cheng I, a notorious pirate who operated in the South China Sea. As head of the fearsome Red Flag Fleet, she commanded over 1,800 pirate ships and an estimated 80,000 pirates. In comparison, Blackbeard commanded four ships and 300 pirates within the same century.

Though her name which we know her by simply translates to ‘Cheng’s widow’, the legacy she left behind far eclipsed her husband’s, and she has gone on to inspire characters such as the powerful Mistress Ching, one of the nine pirate lords in The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

Here are 10 facts about the most successful pirate in history, Ching Shih.

1. She was born into poverty

Ching Shih was born as Shih Yang in 1775 in the poverty-stricken society of Guangdong province in southeast China. Upon reaching puberty, she was forced into sex work to supplement the family income. She worked in a floating brothel, also known as a flower boat, in the Cantonese port city.

She quickly became famous in the area due to her beauty, poise, wit and hospitality. This attracted several high-profile customers such as royal courtiers, military commanders and rich merchants.

2. She married a pirate commander

In 1801, notorious pirate commander Zheng Yi encountered 26-year-old Ching Shih in Guangdong. He was enthralled by her beauty and ability to wield power over her well-connected clients by trading secrets. Different reports state that she either willingly accepted a marriage proposal or was forcibly abducted by Zheng Yi’s men.

What is clear is that she asserted she would only marry him if he granted her 50% of his earnings and partial control of his pirate fleet. Zheng Yi agreed, and they were married. They went on to have two sons.

3. She implemented reforms within the Red Flag Fleet

A Chinese junk depicted in ‘Travels in China: containing descriptions, observations, and comparisons, made and collected in the course of a short residence at the Imperial palace of Yuen-Min-Yuen, and on a subsequent journey through the country from Pekin to Canton’, published in 1804.

Ching Shih fully participated in her husband’s piracy and underworld dealings within the Red Flag Fleet. She implemented a number of rules. These included instant execution for those who refused to follow orders, execution for rape of any female captives, execution for marital infidelity and execution for extra-marital sex.

Female captives were also treated more respectfully, and the weak, unattractive or pregnant ones were freed as soon as possible, while the attractive ones were sold or were permitted to marry a pirate if it was mutually consensual. On the flipside, loyalty and honesty were greatly rewarded, and the fleet was encouraged to work as a cohesive whole.

4. The Red Flag Fleet became the largest pirate fleet on the planet

Under the joint command of Zheng Yi and Ching Shih, the Red Flag Fleet exploded in size and prosperity. The new rules being harsh but fair combined with a reward system meant that many pirate groups in the region merged themselves with the Red Flag Fleet.

It grew from 200 ships at the time of Zheng Yi and Ching Shih’s wedding to 1800 ships in the next few months. As a result, it became the largest pirate fleet on earth.

5. She adopted, then married her son

Zheng Yi and Ching Shih adopted a young fisherman in his mid-20s named Cheung Po from a nearby coastal village. This meant that he became second in command to Zheng Yi. It has variously been theorised that Zheng Yi or Ching Shih were having extra-marital relations with Cheung Po.

Ching Shih’s husband died in 1807 at the age of 42, possibly from a tsunami or because he was murdered in Vietnam. Either way, this left Ching Shih’s leadership in a perilous position. Using her business savvy and Zheng Yi’s connections, Ching Shih managed to temper warring power-hungry captains from other ships, and installed her adopted son as leader of the fleet.

Less than two weeks after the death of her husband, Zheng Yi announced that she would marry her adopted son. They soon became lovers, and Cheung Po’s loyalty to her meant that Ching Shih effectively ruled the Red Flag Fleet.

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6. The Red Flag Fleet dominated the South China Sea

Under Ching Shih’s leadership, the Red Flag Fleet captured new coastal villages and enjoyed total control over the South China Sea. Entire villages worked for the fleet, supplying them with goods and food, and any ship that wanted to cross the South China Sea was taxed. They also frequently plundered British and French coloniser ships.

An East India Company employee named Richard Glasspoole was captured and held by the fleet for 4 months in 1809. He later estimated that there were 80,000 pirates under Ching Shih’s command.

7. She defeated the Qing Dynasty navy

The Chinese Qing Dynasty naturally wanted to put an end to the Red Flag Fleet. Mandarin navy vessels were sent out to confront the Red Flag Fleet in the South China Sea.

After just a few hours, the Mandarin navy was decimated by the Red Flag Fleet. Ching Shih used the opportunity to announce that the Mandarin crew would not be punished if they joined the Red Flag Fleet. As a result, the Red Flag Fleet grew in size, and the Qing Dynasty lost a huge portion of its navy.

8. She was eventually defeated by the Portuguese

Painting of a Portuguese War Ship from the 19th century.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Emperor of China was humiliated that a woman was controlling such an enormous part of the land, sea, people and resources which ‘belonged’ to him. He attempted peace by offering amnesty to all pirates of the Red Flag Fleet.

At the same time, the fleet came under attack from the Portuguese navy. Though the Portuguese had been defeated twice before, they came prepared with a superior supply of ships and weapons. As a result, the Red Flag Fleet was devastated.

After three years of notoriety, Ching Shih retired in 1810 by accepting an offer of amnesty from the Chinese government.

9. The Red Flag Fleet ended on good terms

The whole of the Red Flag Fleet crew was forced to surrender. However, the terms of surrender were good: they were allowed to keep all of their loot, and several pirates were granted jobs within the military and Chinese government. Even Ching Shih’s adopted son Cheung Po later became the captain of the Qing Dynasty’s Guangdong navy.

10. She opened a gambling house and brothel

Ching Shih had a son in 1813, and later had a daughter. In 1822, her second husband lost his life at sea. A wealthy woman, she then relocated to Macau with her children and opened a gambling house, and was also involved in the salt trade. Towards the end of her life, she opened a brothel in Macau.

She died peacefully, aged 69, surrounded by family. Today, her descendants are said to run similar gambling and brothel enterprises in the same area, and she is widely remembered through film, television, manga and folklore as one of the most fearsome and successful pirates in history.

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Lucy Davidson