The Pirate Ching Shih

By Ludovico Pisani, February 19, 2014

Still from the 2003, Ermanno Olmi film, Singing Behind Screens, based on the life of Ching Shih

Still from the 2003, Ermanno Olmi film, Singing Behind Screens, based on the life of Ching Shih

Ching Shih, the greatest and most successful pirate that ever lived was a woman who began life as a prostitute in Canton and ended up commanding a fleet of 60,000 pirates, ending her life in genteel retirement, phenomenally rich, running a gambling hall and brothel.

When we think of pirates there are usually two pictures that are conjured up. The first is that of a large man with a bushy beard and hairy chest covered in scars, criss-crossed by a huge belt holding a sabre. He has one eye that will be covered by a patch, a wooden leg and a hook instead of the hand he lost in battle.  The second is that of a distinguished gentleman wearing a large feathered hat, wearing a dignified jacket from which frilly lace from his white shirt emerges from the sleeves.  In reality the word pirate is a catch-all term for the most varied types, from deserters to adventurers, the unemployed and professional sailors, all of whom are probably escaping from a run-in with the law.

But who was the greatest pirate of all time?  Many think it was Blackbeard or Morgan, some experts think it might be François l’Olonnais, Calico Jack or Black Bart, but very few realise that the largest pirate fleet of all time was under the command of a woman, Ching Shih. She was probably born in 1775 in the city port of Canton and early in life she became a prostitute which is likely how she came to meet Cheng Yi, one of the most feared pirates in China thanks to his fleet of 200 junks.  The pirate had her captured and he eventually asked her to marry him in 1801.  Legend has it that she only agreed if she was allowed to command one of her future husband’s fleets.

Early photograph of Chinese pirates

Early photograph of Chinese pirates

Unlike pirates in the west, in southern China they did not believe that the presence of a woman on board brought bad luck. In fact it was common for wives and children to live with a pirate on board, behaving much like pirates themselves: running the ship, fighting and trading.

We don’t know how much of Ching Shih’s marriage negotiations are true but it is sure that she convinced her husband to come to an agreement with other groups of pirates creating what is known as the “Red Flag Fleet” with its 1,500 ships. By 1805, this fleet had become so feared and successful in Chinese waters that the pirates began to branch out and (when piracy at sea brought meagre gains) attach villages and even fortified towns on land.

We have further proof of Ching Shih’s far-sightedness when in 1807 her husband Cheng Yi died in a typhoon.  The widow (Ching Shih means “widow of Cheng”) temporarily took over full command ensuring the support of family members and more importantly of Chang Pao, one of the most influential pirates in the fleet. Chang Pao had been born into a very poor family when Cheng kidnapped him but he soon showed signs of an innate aptitude for commanding, so much so that he was officially adopted and eventually became one of the commanders of the Red Flag Fleet.

A few weeks after the death of her husband, she began a relationship with her adopted son Chang Pao which eventually led to marriage.  Shih then took over full command of the fleet with Chang Pao as her deputy.  The fleet quickly grew in size to eventually include 60,000 men (about thirty times more in number than all the Caribbean pirates put together).

The Imperial Chinese Navy tried on numerous occasions to defeat her fleet, even with an alliance with the British, French and Portuguese navies – but without success.

Cheng Shih emerged victorious from every attack, even the one that took place in 1808 when the Imperial Chinese Navy managed a surprise attack. The pirates, who were nearly defeated, managed under cover of night to set fire to a large part of the Imperial fleet.

Early caricature of Ching Shih the pirate

Early caricature of Ching Shih the pirate

The Emperor also tried to defeat them by cutting off the pirate fleet’s supply lines but the result was merely to force the pirates to sack and pillage villages on land, razing many of them to the ground.  Some of these villages were even fortified and had hired mercenaries to protect them but in such cases the pirates just massacred the population  as they did in Shansan in 1809.  The village was razed to the ground and the men were all decapitated with their heads all hung on a banana tree on the beach and in Tao-Chiao in the same year, 1,000 men were killed and the 20 most beautiful women were carried off.

In 1810 Emperor Qing, at his wit’s end, offered an amnesty to the pirates so long as Ching Shih declared peace.  The pirate, was by then in a position to dictate terms and she insisted that she would have to be allowed to keep all of the riches she had accumulated to date and her adopted son would have to be given command of a private fleet of 20 junks and the government would have to enrol all of her men that were willing.

The Chinese government had no alternative but to accept.  On the 20 April of 1810 about 20,000 pirates officially “surrendered” handing over their weapons and 226 ships.  Chinese sources tell that to reach the agreement, she made her way personally, unarmed, to the Governor General of Canton with a delegation of 17 people including women and children….leaving her impressive fleet at anchor in the port. The Empire was defeated even at a diplomatic level.

Ching Shih amd Chang Pao initially decided to live in Canton, later moving to Fukien, where they had a son.  In the meantime Chang Pao, was promoted to Colonel and died in 1822 at the age of 37.  Ching Shih, was by then was 35 and extremely rich, so she retired to the mainland and opened a gaming house with a brothel on the side. She lived on until 1844 reaching the age of 69.

The question remains however, how did she manage to command a fleet of hard-nosed thieves and murderers?  Her secret was iron discipline. Decapitation was reserved for anyone sacking a village that had previously paid homage to her or for anyone disobeying her orders. The same punishment was meted out to anyone found stealing or even suspected of stealing.

For going AWOL, your ears were cut off while whippings were extremely common for all sorts of misdemeanours. There were specific rules regarding the treatment of prisoners aboard ship. Rape was punished by death but if the woman was willing she was thrown into the sea with a weight attached to her ankles and the man had his throat cut.

Ching Shih’s theory or hope was that her men would instead take out their frustrations and hostility on the enemy.  There was very little of the romantic here.

But the one thing that made Ching Shih different from all the other pirates in the world was how she treated local populations – she didn’t just threaten them but put them to good use by protecting them in return for money which allowed her to acquire more and more ships.  Also, when her haul of treasure was particularly impressive she would pass on riches to these villages and in return they would refrain from collaborating with the Imperial Navy and pass on false information.

When Ching died in 1844 piracy lived on.  It is estimated that in the last 25 years, in South East Asia alone 17,000 ships have been attacked, an average of 700 per year.

Pirates now use modified rubber dinghies, satellite technology and Kalashnikov rifles have taken the place of telescopes and sabres.

Piracy is on the increase. Since 2011 the number of attacks has tripled in areas like the Caribbean, Gulf of Guinea, the Malacca Straits and the Horn of Africa.  These new pirates tend to work near and around countries where there is political instability due to war or political corruption.

Ludovico Pisani is an archaeologist with a degree from the University of Rome. He has worked on a variety of archaeological digs: that of Lucus Feroniae (Capena), Tor Vergata (Rome), Pyrgi (Santa Severa) and Gabii (Rome). He is currently organizing exhibitions and is writing his thesis for a Masters in “Organisation and Management of Cultural Production” 


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