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Women of History: Ching Shih

Today’s Women of History topic takes us on a walk on the wild side.  Ching Shih was a pirate, a highly successful one.  She even got to retire, which is not a common occurrence for people in this line of work.  She was also one of the few well known female pirates (There are more than you would think given the popular culture).

Ching Shih was born Shi Vianggu in 1775 in Guangdong, China. The name of this town was originally latinized as Canton, hence the term Cantonese.  It is located in the lower part of China, bordering the China sea, and north of Hong Kong.  She spent some time as a prostitute within the province before she was captured by pirates sometime before 1801.  She ended up marrying the leader of those pirates, a man named Cheng I.  Cheng I came from a long line of pirates, so it was a family business.  It was as his wife that her successful career as a Pirate began, as she was involved with his activities and knew who supported her husband, and who needed other means to support her later in life.  He also began consolidating the pirates in the area, eventually becoming the ‘Red Flag Fleet’, one of the most powerful pirating fleets in Asia at the time.

Cheng I unfortunately died in 1807, while in Vietnam.  Shi immediately sought to keep her power base by charming her husband’s former supporters into supporting her, as well as his heirs, a nephew and an adopted son.  Cheng I’s adopted son was named Cheung Po Tsai and was important to Shi’s story.  After getting the support of those who supported her husband, and charming those who weren’t into supporting her, she solidified her role as leader by marrying her step-son, who was Cheng I’s heir.  Putting him as the ‘official’ captain of the fleet smoothed out some of the edges of her plan, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t completely in control.  She was the governing head, while Chang Pao led more like her top general.

Once her position was held, she ran the fleet with a strict set of guidelines and restrictions as to how they do business.  This included a system of distributing the wealth the pirates plundered from their victims.  A general fund was formed, and while each pirate got to retain 20% of whatever he found, the majority was turned into the collective fund.  Her fleet ranged from 300 ships to 1,500 depending on the source, and up to 80,000 men followed her laws.

She also had a strict set of guidelines for the care of prisoners.  Her pirates were to release the female captives unharmed.  They could marry a captive if they wanted, but they were required to be faithful.  Rape or unfaithfulness to one’s wife could gain a pirate the death penalty.  She eventually ruled over several villages along to coast which were forced to pay taxes and duties to her.  She developed economic ties to farmers and other suppliers for her ships.

She even fought against various ships of foreign nations, and the Chinese government and won.  She earned the nickname “The Terror of SOuth China” for her actions.  EVentually the Chinese government negotiated amnesty to Shi to end her reign over the sea.  After negotiating so she kept her money, she agreed and retired a wealthy woman, as well as amnesty for the majority of her men. Some of which went on to be employed by the empire.

All this power and wealth was all created during a period of 10 years.  Her amnesty was granted in 1810, only 9 years after she married the Pirate King.

Not that she was done with running things. After the death of her second husband, Chang Pao, she opened a gambling house in the capital Canton, and ran it until her death in 1844 at the age of 69.

As in interesting side note, Chang Pao (Shi’s second husband) is the inspiration for a character called Sao Feng in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End despite the fact he was not yet alive at the time the movie is based.

There is also a board game called Madame Ching, which is inspired by the pirate.

Further reading:

Wikipedia: Ching Shih

Ancient Origins: Ching Shih

CNN: Most Successful Pirate Was Beautiful And Tough

JSTOR Daily: One Woman’s Rise to Power: Cheng I’s Wife And the Pirates.

Pirates of the Caribbean Wiki: Sao Feng


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A thirty-something Graphic Designer and writer who likes to blog about books, movies and History.

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