Ching Shih is one of the most famous pirates in world history. Active during the 19th century, Shih terrorized the Chinese government by commanding over 300 junks and running between 20,00-40,000 pirates – enough to settle a small city!
In 1801, Ching Shih was a prostitute in a floating brothel in Canton. A powerful pirate known as Zhèng Yi summoned her to his fleet and asked her to marry him. After their marriage, she joined him in the Red Flag Fleet. During their combined reign as leaders of the Red Flag Fleet, they took on as many as 1,700 boats, dividing each group by color. When Yi died in 1807, Shih refused to step down from her life as a pirate. Rather than handing over power to Yi’s adopted son and commander, Shih maneuvered herself into one of the most powerful roles in all of China.
Shih was organized and disciplined. She ruled her pirates with a quasi-government, requiring them to pay taxes and obey laws. Plunder would be registered and evaluated before it could be distributed. About 20 percent of the plunder would be distributed to the fleet, with 80 percent reserved for the fleet’s collective fund. Shih amassed incredible wealth.
Shih was proactive about protecting prisoners and women seized by the fleet. Women who were not attractive were released. If a man wanted to marry a woman who was seized, he was welcome to do so, but only if he promised to be faithful and take great care of her. Shih punished unfaithfulness and rape by death. If a pirate had sex with a captive, he would be beheaded. When a pirate deserted the fleet or got out of line, they would be hunted down, flogged and worse. Executions were common under Shih’s reign. If someone disobeyed an order, they would be beheaded on the spot. Stealing from villagers was strictly prohibited.
Shih was so powerful that she was able to seize a series of villages on the coastal mainland between Canton and Macau. At this time Shih was called The Terror of South China, for her propensity to seize vessels from powerful navys. Portugal, England, and China all saw their ships go down in flames because of Shih. The Chinese government felt she was too powerful to stop through war, since she had defeated the British, Portuguese and Chinese navy. As a result, they offered amnesty to her pirates in an effort to shut down her operation. Rather than allowing that to happen, Shih turned herself in, unarmed, and negotiated the terms of her surrender. Her terms included total freedom and the right to keep all her riches. She spent the rest of her days in Canton, where she ran a successful gambling house.
What makes Ching Shih a powerful character? The way she used her intelligence and toughness to transform herself from a position of total vulnerability to a position of power so strong that not even the world’s strongest navys could stop her. Ching Shih is a popular character in Chinese video games and as this is Women’s History Month, it’s only appropriate we share about one of the most fierce female pirates around.