Ching Shih, born Shi Xianggu in the Guangdong Province of China in 1775, started out underprivileged, a young woman forced into a life of prostitution. But with tenacity, cunning, and sheer force, she grew into one of the most powerful and successful pirates in the history of the world.
In the brothels of Canton where she worked in her youth, she met a notorious pirate, Cheng I, from the famous family of Cheng pirates that had, for many years, terrorized the China seas. She created an equal partnership with him during their marriage, overseeing his crews and handling many of his business affairs. She helped negotiate and facilitate a grand pirate alliance, bringing together fleets of ships from up and down the Asian coast.
She became known as The Terror of South China.
In 1807, Cheng I passed away in Vietnam. This was when Ching Shih made the calculated decision to take command of his fleet and create the largest, most powerful pirate fleet in the history of the world. The Red Flag Fleet contained more than 1,500 ships with 60,000–80,000 pirates under Ching’s command. She ran a ruthless enterprise in which she created laws and enacted severe punishments on those who worked under her and the villages and ships she looted along the way. One example was when she created a tax on the treasure that came in from every ship within her command. Eighty percent of the stolen goods would go to her and the fleet’s collective fund, while the remaining 20% was left to that ship’s crew to be divided.
She became known as The Terror of South China. From Macao to Canton, she controlled villages, kept her business running, and managed a crew of unruly pirates. The Chinese government had little oversight, even with the help of the Portuguese and British navies. Eventually, in 1810, she negotiated an amnesty for herself and the vast majority of her fleet with the Chinese government, including the attractive feature that The Red Flag Fleet would keep the wealth it had acquired.
At this time, she retired from her life as a pirate and married her adoptive son, Cheung Po Tsai. He had been captured as a boy and risen through the fleet’s ranks. With him she had a son, and the couple opened a very successful gambling house. Madame Ching lived a life of wealth, prosperity, and ease until her death in 1844 at the age of 69.
Though Ching Shih is not your classic female heroine, she embodies the power and strength women have always had throughout history, but which is too often overlooked or forgotten. Her story is of the classic rags to riches variety: she was a strong-willed woman who knew she was destined for more.