Ching Shih – From Prostitute to Infamous Female Pirate

Ching Shih (or Zheng Shi) was a Chinese prostitute who became a powerful female pirate, controlling the infamous Red Flag Fleet. The fleet grew under her command, with expanding reserves of loot, and an organized system of business. Eventually, Ching Shih sought amnesty when offered by the Chinese government, but not without first negotiating to maintain the riches and power she earned as a pirate lord.

Little is known about Ching Shih’s early life. However it is known that she was born in the Guangdong province of China in 1775, and her birth name was ShiI Xiang Gu. She became a prostitute who worked in a floating brothel in Canton.

Ching Shih Gains Control of the Red Flag Fleet

In 1801, Pirate Zhèng Yi, who commanded a fleet of ships called the “Red Flag Fleet,” noticed Ching Shih’s beauty, and wished to be with her. There are varying accounts of how they actually came to be together. According to some, Zhèng Yi sent a raid and ordered them to plunder the brothel. He asked that they bring him Ching Shih, his favorite prostitute. The men did as they were ordered, and Zhèng Yi and Ching Shih were married.

By other accounts, Zhèng Yi simply asked Ching Shih to marry him. She agreed to his proposal so long as she would have some power within his organization, and would receive an equal share of his plunder. While the accounts vary as to how they actually came to be together, Ching Shih and Zhèng Yi began to run the Red Flag Fleet together.

Portrait of Ching Shih

Portrait of Ching Shih (

With Zhèng Yi and Ching Shih side-by-side, the Red Flag Fleet quickly grew from 200 ships to more than 600 ships, and eventually to 1700-1800 ships. Their fleet was “color-coded,” with the lead fleet being Red, and the remaining fleets Black, White, Blue, Yellow, and Green. They formed the Cantonese Pirate Coalition with pirate Wu Shi’er. Zhèng Yi died in 1807, only 6 years after marrying Ching Shih. At the time of his death, the Red Flag Fleet included approximately 50,000 – 70,000 pirates.

Ching Shih , not wishing to go back to a life of prostitution, knew that this was her opportunity to rise to become a powerful female pirate lord. She could have simply stepped down from the organization, allowing Chang Pao, Zhèng Yi’s second in command, to take over. Chang Pao had been adopted as a son by Zhèng Yi and Ching Shih. However, Ching Shih craved the power and glory of being the leader of the Red Flag Fleet. With Chang Pao’s support, Ching Shih took charge.

The distinctive curve of a Chinese 'Junk Ship'. Pirate fleets flew a red flag

The distinctive curve of a Chinese ‘Junk Ship’. Pirate fleets flew a red flag ( adventures in history land )

The Powerful Female Pirate had Strict Rules for Her Fleet

Ching Shih was a strict and regimented pirate lord. She focused on business and military strategy. The female pirate leader even went to great lengths to form an “ad hoc” government, under which her pirates were bound to and protected by laws and taxes. Any plunder that was seized had to first be presented to the fleet and registered before it could be distributed. Whichever ship captured the loot was entitled to retain 20% of its value, while the remaining 80% was placed into the fleet’s collective fund.

Ching Shih set forth very strict rules regarding the treatment of captured prisoners – female prisoners in particular. Female captives who were considered to be “ugly” were released, unharmed. A pirate who wished to take a beautiful female captive as their wife was free to do so, but they were bound to be faithful and to care for her.

Unfaithfulness and rape were both offenses for which a pirate would be executed. Harsh capital punishment was common for pirates of the Red Flag Fleet who did not stick to the code. Deserters would be hunted down, and their ears were cut off when they were captured. Other punishments included flogging, quartering, and clapping the offenders in irons.

Ching Shih, the pirate queen of China

Ching Shih, the pirate queen of China ( Public Domain )

Ching Shih was “The Terror of South China”, But She Knew When to End Her Reign

Ching Shih’s fleet took leadership over many coastal villages, sometimes even imposing levies and taxes on the villages. These coastal villages stretched from Macau to Canton. Ching Shih was called “The Terror of South China,” and she would cruelly punish those who resisted her by nailing their feet to her ship’s deck and beating them.

Some claim that Ching Shih was an opium smuggler, while others claim that she stuck mainly to looting, robbing, and taxing the villages her pirates raided. Chinese, Portuguese, and British naval ships were all lost to Ching Shih’s fleet. Because it appeared she could not be defeated, the Chinese offered amnesty to all pirates, hoping to eliminate the female pirate’s reign over the seas.

Negotiations between Chang Pao and the official Zhang Bai Ling hit a deadlock, though. The Chinese government wanted the pirates to kneel before them, and there was disagreement as to what would happen with the reserves of loot. Ching Shih took matters into her own hands, and walked into Zhang Bai Ling’s office unarmed, accompanied by 17 illiterate women and children.

Ching Shih and Zhang Bai Ling concluded negotiations. Ching Shih was permitted to keep all of her loot. To settle the kneeling deadlock, Zhang Bai Ling agreed to witness the marriage of Ching Shih and Chang Pao, for which the two had to kneel before Zhang Bai Ling in thanks. At this point, Ching Shih ended her career as a pirate and had a son with Chang Pao. When Chang Pao died, Ching Shih returned to Canton and opened her own gambling house. She remained in Canton until she died in 1844.

A Rags to Riches Tale, Fit for Children?

The story of Ching Shih is classic rags to riches tale. Through her strength and courage she became a powerful female pirate , in charge of a large fleet and a massive crew. As time went on she became more and more powerful, and her reserves of loot grew until she saw the opportunity for amnesty. Through tough negotiations, Ching Shih was able to walk away with everything she desired and the amnesty she wanted too.

You may be surprised to know that the story of Ching Shih became a children’s book in 2018. That creation is the brainchild of author Sarah Brennan and cartoonist Harry Harrison, who have united to create the bestselling children’s series ‘ Chinese Calendar Tales .’

The stories use each sign of the Chinese zodiac as a launching point into a story on some element of Chinese culture. The tale surrounding Ching Shih’s life also involves a fictional sea dog named Desmond. Brennan told South China Morning Post why she chose Ching Shih as a key character:

“[…] along the way I wrote some articles about historical figures and one of them was Ching Shih. I thought ‘What an amazing woman’. She’s got to be the world’s greatest pirate – God knows why the rest of the Western world only knows about Blackbeard, who had about a quarter of the fleet of this woman – so I thought ‘Right, it’s a fishing boat, there’s a dog, there’s got to be pirates on the sea, it’s got to be Ching Shih’. That’s how I rolled them both together.” 

Top Image: Ching Shih, the pirate queen of China. Source: Azula

By M R Reese

Updated on November 12, 2020.

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