Ching Shih (1775–1844), was a prominent pirate in middle Qing China, who terrorized the China Sea in the early 19th century. She commanded over 300 junks manned by 20,000 to 40,000 pirates. Another estimate has Cheng’s fleet at 1,800 and crew at about 80,000— men, women, and even children. She challenged the empires of the time, such as the British, Portuguese and the Qing dynasty. Undefeated, she would become one of China and Asia’s strongest pirates, and one of world history’s most powerful pirates. She was also one of the few pirate captains to retire from piracy.
She is featured in numerous books, novels, video games and films.
Ching Shih was born in 1775 in Guangdong province. Her name was SHiI Xiang Gu. She was a Cantonese prostitute who worked in a small brothel in the city of Canton, but was captured by pirates. In 1801, she married Zheng Yi, a notorious pirate. The name she is best remembered by simply means “widow of Zheng”.
Marriage to Zheng Yi
Zheng Yi belonged to a family of successful pirates who traced their criminal origins back to the mid-seventeenth century. Following his marriage to Ching Shih, “who participated fully in her husband’s piracy,” Zheng Yi used military assertion and his reputation to gather a coalition of competing Cantonese pirate fleets into an alliance. By 1804, this coalition was a formidable force, and one of the most powerful pirate fleets in all of China; by this time they were known as the Red Flag Fleet.
Ascension to leadership
On 16 November 1807, Zheng Yi died in Vietnam. Ching Shih immediately began maneuvering her way into his leadership position. She started to cultivate personal relationships to get rivals to recognize her status and solidify her authority. In order to stop her rivals before open conflict erupted, she sought the support of the most powerful members of her husband’s family: his nephew Cheng Pao-yang and his cousin’s son Cheng Ch’i. Then she drew on the coalition formed by her husband by building upon some of the fleet captains’ existing loyalties to her husband and making herself essential to the remaining captains.
Since Ching Shih would have such a large force at her command, she knew she needed someone to assist her in managing the Red Flag Fleet’s day-to-day operations, but remain loyal to her and be accepted by the low-level pirates. She believed there was only one man for the job, Chang Pao.
Relationship with Chang Pao
Chang Pao was the son of a fisherman and had been impressed into piracy at age 15, when he was captured by Zheng Yi. Pao rose rapidly through the ranks and was eventually adopted by Zheng Yi. Zheng Yi was a known bisexual so the adoption was a cover for him to have Chang Pao as his male lover.
As soon as Ching Shih chose Pao, she acted quickly to solidify the partnership with intimacy. The two became lovers within weeks and eventually married. Ching Shih gave birth to a son at the age of 38 with Chang Pao. Chang Pao died at 36, cause unknown.
Once she held the fleet’s leadership position, Ching Shih started the task of uniting the fleet by issuing a code of laws. (The Neumann translation of The History of Pirates Who Infested the China Sea claims that it was Chang Pao that issued the code. Yuan Yung-lun says that Chang Pao issued his own code of three regulations, called san-t’iao, for his own fleet, but these are not known to exist in a written form. The code was very strict and according to Richard Glasspoole, strictly enforced.
First, anyone giving their own orders (ones that did not come down from Ching Shih) or disobeying those of a superior were beheaded on the spot.
Second, no one was to steal from the public fund or any villagers that supplied the pirates.
Third, all goods taken as booty had to be presented for group inspection. The booty was registered by a purser and then distributed by the fleet leader. The original seizer received twenty percent and the rest was placed into the public fund.
Fourth, actual money was turned over to the squadron leader, who only gave a small amount back to the seizer, so the rest could be used to purchase supplies for unsuccessful ships. According to Philip Maughan, the punishment for a first-time offense of withholding booty was severe whipping of the back. Large amounts of withheld treasure or subsequent offenses carried the death penalty.
Ching Shih’s code had special rules for female captives. Standard practice was to release women, but J.L. Turner witnessed differently. Usually the pirates made their most beautiful captives their concubines or wives. If a pirate took a wife he had to be faithful to her. The ones deemed unattractive were released and any remaining were ransomed. Pirates that raped female captives were put to death, but if pirates had consensual sex with captives, the pirate was beheaded and the woman he was with had cannonballs attached to her legs and was chucked off the side of the boat.
Violations of other parts of the code were punished with flogging, clapping in irons, or quartering. Deserters or those who had left without official permission had their ears chopped off, and then were paraded around their squadron. Glasspoole concluded that the code “gave rise to a force that was intrepid in attack, desperate in defense, and unyielding even when outnumbered.”
The fleet under her command established hegemony over many coastal villages, in some cases even imposing levies and taxes on settlements. According to Robert Antony, Ching Shih “robbed towns, markets, and villages, from Macau to Canton.” In 1806 a British officer reported on the terrible fate of those who resisted Ching Shih’s pirates; the pirates nailed an enemy’s feet to the deck and then beat him senseless. Contemporary reports from the British admiralty called her “The Terror of the South China”.
The 1932 book The History of Piracy by Philip Gosse (grandson of the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse) claims Ching Shih was an opium smuggler.
The Chinese navy lost sixty-three ships in the attacks. Even the hired navies of Portugal and Britain could not defeat Ching Shih. Finding it hopeless to defeat her, in 1810, amnesty was offered to all pirates. Ching Shih and Chang Pao wanted to take advantage of the amnesty but negotiation at sea between Chang Pao and the government official Zhang Bai Ling (张百龄）hit a deadlock. Besides the fate of the loot, one sticking point was the government’s demand that the pirates had to kneel before them. For the pirates to consider kneeling in front of their previous defeated foe was too much to accept.
Ching Shih took 17 illiterate women and children and walked into Zhang Bai Ling’s office in Canton unarmed and began negotiation. She got everything she wanted including keeping all her loot. The kneeling deadlock was solved by Zhang Bai Ling acting as a witness at the marriage of Chang Po and Ching Shih (officially, Chang Pao was still Ching Shih’s son, so a government blessing was needed). The two had to kneel to thank him. That was accepted as part of the act of surrender.
She ended her career that year with all her loot. Chang Pao was given an official position in the government. After he died suddenly, Ching Shih went back to Canton with her young son and opened a gambling house.
She died in 1844, at the age of 69.