Ching Shih (also known as Zheng Shi) was no ordinary Chinese woman, she not just became the pirate queen but also terrorized the Chinese seas during the Jiaqing Emperor period of the Qing dynasty, controlling the infamous Red Flag Fleet. She had over 1700 traditional Chinese sailing ships, manned by up to 70,000 pirates under her command including men, women and even children.
Ching Shih entered into conflict with major nations such as the British Empire, the Portuguese Empire, and the Qing Dynasty. With the power Ching Shih had, she expanded her reserves of loot and also had an organized system of business and a reputation that she maintained as business savvy. She is considered the most successful pirate of all the time as she lived to tell the tale but also retired with a huge hoard of treasure and died as a free woman in her own death bed.
Born in Guangdong province of China in 1775, in her early life, she struggled to survive but at her young age, she became a prostitute, working in a floating brothel in Canton and is believed this is where she built contacts which eventually gained her the power and everything she had.
In 1801, she got married to Zheng Yi who was a famous and powerful Chinese pirate operating from Guangdong. Many believe that Zheng Yi promised 50% of his assets and power within his organization to Chng Shih in order to marry her. Although some argue that Zheng Yi ordered his men to plunder the brother and bring him Ching Shih, his favorite prostitute, as he wished to marry her.
Other varying accounts of Ching Shih marrying to Zheng Yi states that it was her who wished to receive an equal share of his plunder and power. Anyhow both get married and later with their adopted son Cheung Po became a formidable force, and one of the most powerful pirate fleets in all of China by 1804, being recognized as the Red Flag Fleet.
The Red Flag Fleet quickly grew from 200 ships to more than 1700 ships and included approximately 70,000 pirates from just 30,000.
Ching Shih’s control and codes of conduct
After the death of her husband Zheng Yi at the age of 39 in 1807, Ching Shih knew she had to take the leadership into her hands if she doesn’t wish to go back to a life of prostitution. She started cultivating personal relationships with rivals to recognize her status and solidify her authority. She even got intimated with her adopted son Cheung Po in order to solidify relationships with him and gain his support to take over the leadership.
Soon she drew enough support from her son, some of the fleet captains that her husband drew coalition with and importantly with the most powerful members of her husband’s family: his nephew Ching Pao-yang and his cousin’s son Ching Chi’i, making herself essential for the whole fleet.
Controlling such large force at her command was not easy, for which she sought assistance from her second-in-command Cheung Po Tsai to manage the Red Flag Fleet’s day to day operations. She also named him official captain of the fleet, and was accepted by the low-level pirates, he remained loyal to Ching Shih.
After she held the leadership position, Ching Shih started issuing a very strict code of laws that everyone in the fleet had to follow which were strictly enforced.
Orders such as —
- If anyone found giving their own orders (Not given directly by Ching Shih) or disobeying orders from a superior was beheaded on the spot.
- Female captives, who were considered to be “ugly” were released unharmed. Although any pirate who wishes to take a female captive as their wife was free to do so only if the pirate remains faithful to her and take care of her. Unfaithfulness and rapes were both offenses leading to death penalties.
- All captured goods had to be represented for inspection and were registered by a purser and later distributed by the fleet leader. The original seizer received 20% and the rest was placed into the public fund.
There were other codes of laws too, but those are not known to exist in written form. Also, the punishment for the offending these laws was very severe, like cutting off the ears, flogging, quartering and clapping in irons could be the fate of the offender. Even consensual sex with the captive females by the pirates was an offense, the pirate was beheaded and the woman he was with had cannonballs attached to her legs and was thrown over the side of the boat.
End of Pirate Career
The Red Flag Fleet under Ching Shih command dominated many coastal villages, robbed towns, markets from Macau to Canton. It is also said that in one of the villages named Sanshan village, they beheaded 80 men and their women and children were held captives for ransom until they were sold in slavery.
Tired of the fleet’s torture and cruelty on innocent people, the Chinese government in January 1808 tried to destroy the Red Flag Fleet in a series of fierce battles. However, under Ching Shih’s leadership, the government ships were pillage and taken over, causing the government to revert back to only using fishing vessels for the battle.
During this war, Ching Shih’s fleet faced a greater threat from other pirate fleets, one of which was from O-po-tae, a former allied pirate who began working with the Qing government.
The Red Flag Fleet was undefeated for years under Ching Shih’s rule, neither by the Qing dynasty nor by British or Portuguese bounty hunters. An officer of East India Company’s ship The Marquis of Ely along with 7 British sailors was also taken captive by her in 1809.
But this could not be held forever, in September and November 1809, Ching Shih and Cheung Po Tsai fleet suffered a series of defeats by the Portuguese Navy at the Battle of the Tiger’s Mouth.
Naval Battle of Chek Lap Kok turned out to be their final battle in 1810, they surrendered to the Portuguese Navy and accepted the amnesty offered by the Qing Imperial government to all the pirates who agreed to surrender.
But there was an agreement between the government and Ching Shih for the Red Flag Fleet to surrender, the negotiation was not easy, but finally, the government agreed that Ching Shih and other pirates who surrendered can keep their loot and assets with them.
Not only this but Ching Shih also asked for her relationship with her adopted son Chang Pao to be banished so they can get married and change their relationship to husband and wife. Her all demands were met, and her career as a pirate came to an end along with her now-husband Chang Pao.
Cheung Po Tsai repatriated to Qing Dynasty government and was appointed as a captain in the Qing’s Guangdong Navy.
She had a son and a daughter with Chang Pao, and after he died in 1822, Ching Shih moved her family to Macau and invested her loot money to open a gambling house and a brothel.
It is also believed that in her later years, she was an advisor during the First Opium War to Lin Zexu in battling with the British Army in 1839.
She remained as a free woman until she died in 1844 in Macau, surrounded by her family peacefully at the age of 69.
Ching Shih’s story made many authors write about her, films and games were also made. Interestingly, a character loosely resembling Ching Shih also appeared in the famous movie in 2007, Pirates of The Carribean: At World’s End, as Mistress Ching, one of the nine Pirate Lords of the Brethren Court and the powerful leader of the pirate confederation of China, the role was played by the actress Takayo Fischer.
The story of Ching Shih is foretold with many variants, but it still remains the classic rags to riches tale. Her strength, courage, knowledge earned her what she wanted and became the powerful female pirate.