Ching Shih’s early life is shrouded in mystery. Even her name isn’t really her own, as “Ching Shih” translates to “widow of Ching”. She first appears in the historical record in 1801. However, she left her mark on history as one of the most successful pirates.
It is theorized Ching Shih was born around 1775 in the Guangdong province of China. One source records her birth name as Shil Xiang Gu. Nothing is known of her childhood, but I imagine it wasn’t one of ease. At the age of 26, she was a prostitute on a floating brothel in Canton. In 1801, she caught the eye of Ching Yi, who commanded a fleet of ships called the “Red Flag Fleet”. Ching Yi was instantly smitten with her beauty and wanted her for his wife. There are several legends on how this came about. One says he raided the brothel and ask they bring him Ching Shih. Other accounts say he simply asked her to marry him. Either way, Ching Shih on one condition- that Ching shih would receive an equal share of plunder from the fleet’s piracy and that she would hold some power within organization. Ching Yi agreed and the two were married and started running the Red Flag Fleet as a family business. Under their joint leadership, the Fleet grew from 200 ships to up to 1700- 1800 ships. There were too many for just one color, and the expanded into different names. The lead fleet was the original Red, and the ancillary fleets were designated as Black, White, Blue, Yellow and Green. They were so powerful, the Emperor of China gave Ching Yi the title of “Golden Dragon of the Imperial Staff” and promoted him to the rank of prince.
In 1807, Ching Yi died in a typhoon off Vietnam. Instead of retiring as a proper widow, Ching Shih took command of the Fleets. According to legend, following her husband’s death, she summoned the scattering fleet captains and announced: “Under the leadership of a man you have all chosen to flee. We shall see how you prove yourselves under the hand of a woman.” Cultivating relationships with her husband’s family, especially his nephew Ching Paw-yang and his cousin’s son Cheng Ch’i, kept her rivals from opening rifts within the organization. She had an especially close relationship with her husband’s adopted son, Cheung Po Tsai. Cheung Po Tsai was a talented and energetic young man, who had been a fisherman’s son impressed into piracy but quickly rose through the ranks. Ching Yi adopted him to give him the rights of an heir. Within a very short time, Ching Shih and Cheung Po Tsai became lovers. They were married soon after, and Ching Shih now had a lieutenant she could trust completely.
The fleets were ruled by a strict code of conduct outlined by Ching Shih herself. Anyone who broke these rules had their head chopped off with an axe. These rules were displayed in a common area of all ships. Paraphrased they were (from www.rejectedprincesses.com):
- Ching Shih approves all attacks beforehand. Disobey and your head ends up in the ocean not attached to your body.
- You give all loot to your superior, who distributes it afterwards. Disobey once, you’re beaten severely. Disobey twice, your head ends up in the ocean not attached to your body.
- Don’t desert your post or take shore leave without permission. Disobey once, we cut off your ears and parade you around. Disobey twice, your head ends up in the ocean not attached to your body.
- Rape a female captive, and your head ends up in the ocean not attached to your body.
- Female captives who were considered to be “ugly” were released, unharmed.
- Have consensual sex with a female captive without permission, your head ends up in the ocean not attached to your body and she’s learning to swim with lead weights.
- If you want to have sex with a female prisoner, you take her as your wife. You are faithful to her. You treat her well or your head ends up in the ocean not attached to your body.
- Don’t use the word “plunder.” Instead, say “transferring shipment of goods.” It just sounds more official
Does anyone see a pattern?
The Red Flag Fleet under Ching Shih ruled the South China Seas. They plundered ships, sacked towns and sometimes even collected taxes from any coastal villages they ran across. In 1808, the Imperial Navy attacked the Red Flag Fleet. She met them in open battle and set them limping home. They sent British and Portuguese bounty hunters after her, and they were also sent home with their heads in a sack.
Realizing they couldn’t beat her, the Chinese government offered her universal pirate amnesty in exchange for peace. This is where Ching Shih showed her true brilliance. She engaged in a three month long deliberation with the Chinese Imperial government and negotiated a sweet deal. She was permitted to keep all of her loot, and most of her crews received amnesty as well. Her husband Cheung Po Tsai received a commision in the Chinese navy, and the two settled in Canton. Ching Shih opened a gambling house with her ill gotten gains and died a 69 year old grandmother in 1844.
Sources available on request