Shih Ching (also transliterated as Shi Yang; c. 1775–1844) was a female Chinese pirate who gained command of the “Red Flag Fleet,” one of the largest pirate consortiums to ever terrorize the high seas. Because Ching was never captured, she never suffered punishment for her criminal activities and spent her elder years in comfort and relative affluence.
Areview of Shih Ching's life might sound like the synopsis of a melodramatic action/adventure movie, but in this case the story is true. Ching was an attractive woman who worked a prostitute in her native China before rising to become one of the world's most notorious pirate fleet commanders. She operated the infamous Red Flag Fleet during the early nineteenth century, continuing to expand the fleet's size and predatory capacity. Ching was not only beautiful, courageous, and fierce, she was also intelligent and devised an atypical business regimen that contributed to her financial success. Although women who chose piracy as a career were not uncommon in the Asiatic region of the world, no other female buccaneer achieved her level of success.
Not much is known of Ching's life prior to the time she became a pirate and even her birth name is unknown. During different stages of her life, she assumed the names Shi Xainggu, Zheng Yi Sao, and Zheng Shih. What is known is that the future pirate was born in or about 1775, in the Guangdong province of China.
It is likely that Ching was raised in poverty and had no prospects of marriage. During her early twenties, she became a prostitute in a floating brothel in Guangzhou, the city also known as Canton. The affluence of her clientele helped to enrich Ching, for Guangzhou was the capital city of Guangdong Province. Located on the Pearl River, the city was a major port and the river allowed it to expand into an important maritime transportation route.
From courtesan, Ching eventually became the madame of a brothel due to her beauty and fiery spirit, and her clients included men who were wealthy and powerful. Among them was Zheng Yi (also transliterated as Cheng Yi and Cheng I), who commanded a fleet of ships known as the Red Flag Fleet. Very much enamored by her beauty and intelligence, Yi asked Ching to forsake the brothel and sail away with him. Complicating their relationship was Yi's “adopted son” Chang Paou, a young teenager who Yi had taken as a lover.
Regardless of the complexities of the relationship, Ching eventually accepted Yi's offer of marriage in 1801, and it is likely that she secured a 50 percent share of the Red Flag Fleet in the bargain. History includes several colorful versions of the couple's marriage arrangement. One account relates that Yi ordered members of his pirate crew to loot Ching's brothel of its valuables and bring Ching to his ship.
As Yi's wife and partner, Ching first worked behind the scenes, managing the costs of running the fleet and its crew. Her business acumen allowed the Red Flag Fleet to become increasingly profitable. Under their shared command, Yi and Ching (now known as Zheng Yi Sao, or “wife of Zheng Yi”) grew the fleet to 200 ships, and their adventures included participating in the Tay Son rebellion, a long-running battle between dynasties of north and south Annam (now Vietnam). They returned to Guangzhou and teamed up with another pirate, Wu Shi’er, to establish the Cantonese Pirate Coalition.
By the beginning of 1807, this enlarged fleet included a crew of 70,000 aboard 600 ships. On November 16, 1807, only six years after his marriage to Ching, the fleet was caught in a typhoon, a tornado forming over the ocean. Yi was killed during the violent storm, reportedly swept overboard. Known as “Zheng Shih” (“Zheng's widow”) following her husband's death, Ching found a way to secure her control over the lucrative pirate venture: she took as her lover Paou, who was then age 21 and had inherited Zheng's half-interest in the Red Flag Fleet.
By 1810, Ching commanded more than 1,800 ships and a crew of 80,000, both male and female. The Red Flag Fleet was now considered invincible, resisting attacks from every major naval power sailing the South China Sea. Although she was a strict leader, she was respected by her crew. An ad hoc relationship with various governments allowed pirates sailing with the Red Flag Fleet to be legally protected from prosecution. With overhead reduced, Ching's crew was allowed to keep a larger share of their plunder than were other Chinese pirates. Under her management, the fleet's wealth and power continued to increase.
Ching's rigid style extended from financial matters to other areas. In the treatment of female captives, those considered unattractive were released, and desirable women became the wives of crew members who agreed to care for and be faithful to their chosen brides. In this and other areas, crew members risked capital punishment such as beheading if they did not adhere to Ching's strict code of conduct. Transgressors were imprisoned and flogged, and deserters were relentlessly hunted down and returned to their ship, where their ears were cut off. Openly defiant crewmembers could have their feet nailed to their ship's deck while Ching personally delivered a suitably cruel physical punishment.
Through her shrewdness, Ching transformed the South China region into a pirate-governed territory. Her influence extended to coastal communities as well, from Macau to Guangzhou, where inhabitants and local governments were subject to levies and taxes. She also gained a reputation as a drug trafficker, running an opium-smuggling operation but wisely keeping her illegal operations confined to the fleet's area of operations. Ching was now known as “The Terror of South China,” and this nickname proved apt. When unwary ships from countries such as Portugal and Great Britain ventured into her seas, they often disappeared.
As Ching's base of power grew, Chinese Emperor Jiaquing grew increasingly frustrated that this portion of his vast country fell under pirate control. Hoping to regain control, he gathered a fleet of war vessels and targeted the Red Flag Fleet. When Ching heard of the emperor's plans to attack, she met his fleet head on and defeated it. Showing her contempt for her foe, she added 63 of the emperor's ships to her pirate fleet and also recruited many members of his crew.
The Qing Dynasty was determined to end Ching's rule of the South China Sea, and their next step was to convinced naval superpowers Great Britain, Portugal, and Holland to help them. The Chinese government hired the navies of these nations, paying them a considerable amount of money to pursue and vanquish the Red Flag Fleet. After two years of war, Ching's fleet still dominated the area, and Jiaquing was forced to adopt another strategy to gain peace.
The Chinese government knew that their naval forces were outmatched, and they now offered appeasement. By promising amnesty to all crew members of the Red Flag Fleet, they hoped that Ching would end her dominion over trade routes and coastal villages in the South China region. Paou, Ching's second-in-command, entered negotiations with Chinese official Zhang Bai Ling, but problems came when the Chinese government demanded that the pirates acknowledge their defeat by kneeling at their ruler's feet. The two sides also disagreed on what to do with the riches gained from many years of piracy.
With negotiations at a standstill, Ching asked Paou to step aside. She entered Zhang Bai Ling's office unarmed and accompanied by 17 illiterate women and children. Ultimately, negotiations led to a resolution. Ching and her pirates were allowed to retain all of the loot they had gained. The issue of kneeling was also resolved to Ling's satisfaction: When Ching and Paou were formally married, Ling served as a witness, and they knelt before him in a display of gratitude.
When Ching left the high seas with her vast fortune, she was given the title “Lady by Imperial Decree.” She was accepted into society and also into the Chinese aristocracy, where she enjoyed legal protection. At age 35, she opened a combined brothel/gambling house in Guangzhou. She and Paou also produced a son, and his marriage eventually made Ching a grandmother. She managed her gambling house for several decades before dying in 1844, at age 69, having never suffered punishment from any law and never scarred by blade or bullet.
Characters based on Ching's life and exploits as a female pirate have found their way into the pop culture of the late 20th century due to their feminist tropes. Many critics have cited her as the inspiration for the Dragon Lady, a popular villain in Milt Caniff's long-running syndicated comic strip “Terry and the Pirates.” Her spirit has lived on in several books about pirates, as well as in Pirates of the Caribbean: At the World's End, an installment in Disney Studio's popular pirate movie series.
Goldstein, Jack, 101 Amazing Women: Extraordinary Heroines throughout History, Andrews UK, 2016.
Maréchaux, Laurent, Outlaws! Adventures of Pirates, Scoundrels, and Other Rebels, Flammarion, 2009.
Shen, Ann, Bad Girls throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World, Chronicle Books, 2016.
Ancient Origins website, http://www.ancient-origins.net/ (August 10, 2016), “Shih Ching.”
Anne Bonnie Pirate website, http://www.annebonnypirate.com/ (August 10, 2016), “Famous Female Pirates.”
Cultural China website, http://history.cultural-china.com/ (August 1, 2016), “Shih Ching: The Chinese History-Made Female Pirate.”
Today I Found Out… website, http://www.todayifoundout.com/ (August 25, 2016), “The Female Prostitutethat Rose to Become One of the Most Powerful Pirates in History.”❑