I have a girl-crush on Ching Shih, which is disturbing because she died over 170 years ago. Starting from humble beginnings, Ching Shih or Zhèng Yi Sao (wife of Zhèng) maneuvered through hierarchies, faced seeming insurmountable odds and happens to be one of very few pirates who retired from piracy, and she did so with treasure to spare.
Though she was only known as Ching Shih in her earlier life later having it changed to Zhèng Yi Sao after her marriage, for the purposes of this article we will call her Ching Shih so as to avoid any confusion.
From Prostitute to Pirate – Madame Ching Shih
Ching Shih was born 1775 in Guangdong Province, China, and became a prostitute in a Canton floating brothel. While she had many clients, one was a swashbuckling pirate who ran a small fleet of vessels called the Red Flag Fleet. There are two different versions of this story of how these two married – some historians hold that Zhèng Yi sent a raid to plunder the brothel and asked his men to bring back his favorite prostitute, my lady-crush, Ching Shih. Others claim he simply went there himself and proposed to her, which she only agreed to after he consented to give her equal share of his plunder and to allow her to help run his organization. I love how business-savvy she was – always thinking ahead, that Ching Shih. *swoon*
Whatever the case, it was arguably the best move Zhèng Yi made – not only did he get the girl of his dreams, but his business grew exponentially afterward. It wasn’t a bad move for Ching Shih either – she ended up making history and became one of the most successful pirates of her time – arguably, in history.
Despite having been married, Zhèng Yi died six years after marrying his lady love which left Ching Shih in a dilemma. Where most women would step aside in honor and in the spirit of wifely duty, she stepped up and did so with great intelligence and strategy. She made her deceased husband’s second-in-command, Chang Pao, in charge of the fleet so she could focus on business development and military strategy.
While the numbers vary, many sources claim that the Red Flag Fleet had 70,000 – 80,000 pirates, with Ching Shih overseeing “upper management.” Together they dominated the South China Sea, overpowering Portuguese, British and Chinese supply and military ships and sailed as far south as Malaysia. If that isn’t enough, she offered “protection” to merchant ships sailing through the South China Sea, for a price of course. And if you didn’t want to pay the price, then you were fair game.
Let’s get real for a minute – managing 20 people is difficult enough as it is, how the heck did she manage thousands upon thousands of pirates? This is where it gets really interesting.
Ching Shih’s Code
Ching Shih initiated and executed a very strict law for her nautical band of outlaws, and she was religious in ensuring its application. In other words, she created a very strong “company culture” which bred loyalty, devotion, and principle with strong retribution for those who went against it. Here are a FEW of the rules she put in place:
- If you disobeyed an order, raped anyone (without permission from your captain), or stole loot, you would have your head chopped off and body thrown in the ocean.
- If you had consensual sex with someone on duty, you would have your head chopped off and your body would be thrown in the ocean. The woman would have something heavy tied to her legs and would be thrown overboard.
- If you loot or harass a town or ship who has paid tribute to the Red Flag Fleet, you would have your head chopped off and your body thrown in the ocean.
(There seems to be a theme here)
- If women were captured, the pretty ones could marry a pirate, but the pirate had to be faithful to them or have their head chopped off and body thrown in the sea. The women considered to be ugly had to be set free unharmed or ransomed out.
- If any pirate took unapproved leave or tried to flee from the fleet, they would have their ears chopped off and paraded about in front of their squadron.
Ching Shih’s Retirement
Despite doing his best to overpower Ching Shih, the Chinese Emperor failed over and over again. He even sent out an armada to destroy her fleet, but she easily overpowered them, took 63 of their ships and recruited the crew members to join the Red Flag Fleet. It wasn’t a hard decision for the emperor’s crew to make: you could either join the Red Flag Fleet or have your feet pinned to the side of the ship.
The emperor, not willing to back down from a fight, enlisted the help of the English and Portuguese navies as well as some Dutch ships to help defeat Ching Shih. But she, being the brilliant military strategist she was, won battle after battle until the Qing Dynasty offered her and her band of misfits amnesty – save for about 376 of the crew who were punished for their crimes.
This woman retired at the age of 35…35! I am 32… I mean 24. I am 24 years old so I still have time, right? She retired back to Canton and opened up a gambling house and brothel which she ran until she died at 69 years old, in 1844.
While I am in awe of her ability to lead, her intelligence and business acumen, I am definitely not as capable as she. She is, without a doubt, the most badass woman I have ever heard of. If that isn’t enough, she was gorgeous and took care of her fellow ladies when captured. While many of her methods would be considered today as immoral or inhumane, I have a feeling that if she did it any other way at that time in history, her results may not have been as favorable for her.
While I have not met her, I do have a lot of admiration and respect for this woman. If she were still alive and we happened to be in the same place, I would probably hide in the shadows and just watch her, hoping that she didn’t see me but wishing maybe she did? Here’s to you, Ching Shih!