Ching Shih:65 (Chinese: 鄭氏; literally: 'widow of Zheng') (born Shih Yang (Chinese: 石陽; 1775–1844), a.k.a. Cheng I Sao (Chinese: 鄭一嫂), was a Chinese pirate leader who terrorized the China Seas during the Jiaqing Emperor period of the Qing dynasty in the early 19th-century. She commanded over 300 junks (traditional Chinese sailing ships) manned by 20,000 to 40,000 pirates:71—men, women, and even children. She entered into conflict with the major nations, such as the British Empire, the Portuguese Empire, and the Qing dynasty.
Shih Yang (石陽)
|Died||1844 (aged 68–69)|
|Occupation||businesswoman (salt trader, gambling house and brothel owner), former pirate and prostitute|
|Known for||well known female Chinese pirate|
|Criminal penalty||death penalty|
(m. 1801; died 1807)
Cheung Po Tsai
(m. 1810; died 1822)
|Nickname||Shih Heang Koo (石香姑)|
|Other names||Ching I Sao (鄭一嫂) |
Ching Shih Shih (鄭石氏)
|Allegiance||Red Flag Fleet|
|Base of operations||South China Sea|
|Commands||Red Flag Fleet (300 ships of 20,000-40,000 pirates)|
|Battles/wars||Battle of the Tiger's Mouth |
Naval Battle of Chek Lap Kok
|Later work||gambling house owner at Guangzhou |
gambling house and brothel owner, salt trader at Macao
|Literal meaning||widow of Cheng|
|Cheng I Sao|
|Literal meaning||wife of Cheng I|
|Shih Yang |
|Shih Heang Koo |
Ching Shi and her crew's exploits had since been featured in numerous books, novels, video games, and films about piracy, pirates and their way of life in China as well as worldwide. She is widely considered to be the most successful pirate in history, based on the fact that she commanded the largest crew ever assembled, and that she died in her own bed as a free woman.
She was born Shih Yang (石陽) in 1775 in Guangdong province. She was a Cantonese prostitute or madame nicknamed Shih Heang Koo (石香姑) who worked in a floating brothel (花船) in Guangzhou. In 1801, she married Cheng I, a notorious pirate.
Marriage to Cheng IEdit
Cheng I was from a family of notorious pirates whose roots trace back to the mid-17th century. Sources differ on Cheng I's motivation for marriage: some argue that he became infatuated with Shih Heang Koo, while others argue that the union was purely as a business move intended to consolidate power. Either way, Shih Heang Koo is said to have agreed to lend her powers of intrigue, as it were, to her husband's endeavours by formal contract, which granted her a 50% control and share. Following their marriage, Shih "who participated fully in her husband's piracy," was known as Cheng I Sao (鄭一嫂; 'wife of Cheng I'). They adopted Cheung Po as their step-son, making him Cheng's fully legal heir. Cheng also bore two more sons: Cheng Ying Shih (鄭英石) and Cheng Heung Shih (鄭雄石). Cheng I used military assertion and his reputation to bind former rivalling Cantonese pirate fleets into an alliance. By 1804, this coalition was a formidable force, and one of the most powerful pirate fleets in all of China; by this time they were known as the Red Flag Fleet.
Ascension to leadershipEdit
On 16 November 1807, Cheng I died in Vietnam at 39. Ching Shih immediately began maneuvering her way into his leadership position. She started to cultivate personal relationships to get rivals to recognize her status and solidify her authority. She acted quickly to solidify the partnership with her step-son Cheung Po with intimacy. In order to stop her rivals before open conflict erupted, she sought the support of the most powerful members of her husband's family: his nephew Ching Pao-yang and his cousin's son Ching Ch'i. Then she drew on the coalition formed by her husband by building upon some of the fleet captains' existing loyalties to her husband and making herself essential to the remaining captains.:71
Since Ching Shih would have such a large force at her command, her second-in-command Cheung Po Tsai would assist her in managing the Red Flag Fleet's day-to-day operations, however, as the time called for a male to be in charge, she named him official captain of the fleet, but he would remain loyal to her and be accepted by the low-level pirates.:71
Code of lawsEdit
Once she held the fleet's leadership position, Ching Shih started the task of uniting the fleet by issuing a code of laws.:28 The Neumann translation of "The History of Pirates Who Infested the China Sea" claims that it was Cheung Po Tsai that issued the code. Yuan Yung-lun says that Cheung issued his own code of 3 regulations, called san-t'iao, for his own fleet, but these are not known to exist in a written form. The code was very strict and according to Richard Glasspoole, strictly enforced.
1) Anyone giving their own orders (ones that didn't come down from Ching Shih) or disobeying those of a superior was beheaded on the spot.
2) No one was to steal from the public fund or any villagers that supplied the pirates.
3) All goods taken as booty had to be presented for group inspection. The booty was registered by a purser and then distributed by the Fleet Leader. The original seizer received 20% and the rest was placed into the public fund.
4) Actual money was turned over to the Squadron Leader, who only gave a small amount back to the seizer, so the rest could be used to purchase supplies for unsuccessful ships.:39 According to Philip Maughan, the punishment for a first-time offense of withholding booty was severe whipping of the back. Large amounts of withheld treasure or subsequent offenses carried the death penalty.:29
Ching Shih's code had special rules for female captives. Standard practice was to release women, but J.L. Turner witnessed differently. Usually the pirates made their most beautiful captives their concubines or wives. If a pirate took a wife he had to be faithful to her. The ones deemed unattractive were released and any remaining were ransomed. Pirates that raped female captives were put to death, but if pirates had consensual sex with captives, the pirate was beheaded and the woman he was with had cannonballs attached to her legs and was thrown over the side of the boat.:29
Violations of other parts of the code were punished with flogging, clapping in irons, or quartering. Deserters or those who had left without official permission had their ears chopped off, and then were paraded around their squadron. Glasspoole concluded that the code "gave rise to a force that was intrepid in attack, desperate in defense, and unyielding even when outnumbered."
The fleet under her command established hegemony over many coastal villages, in some cases even imposing levies and taxes on settlements. According to Robert Antony, Ching Shih "robbed towns, markets, and villages, from Macau to Canton." In one coastal village, the Sanshan village, they beheaded 80 men and abducted their women and children and held them for ransom until they were sold in slavery.
In January 1808, the Chinese government tried to destroy her fleet in a series of fierce battles. However Ching Shih managed to pillage and take over the government ships. The government had to revert to only using fishing vessels for battle.
At the same time that the government was attacking her, Ching Shih faced a larger threat in the form of other pirate fleets. One in particular was O-po-tae, a former allied-pirate who began working with the Qing government, that forced them to retreat from the coast.
For years, the Red Flag Fleet under Ching Shih's rule could not be defeated, neither by Qing dynasty Chinese officials nor by Portuguese or British bounty hunters. She captured Richard Glasspoole, an officer of the East India Company ship The Marquis of Ely, and 7 British sailors in 1809.
In September and November 1809, Ching Shih and Cheung Po Tsai fleet suffered a series of defeats inflicted by the Portuguese Navy at the Battle of the Tiger's Mouth and there was no way they would be able to hold out forever. In their final battle in the Naval Battle of Chek Lap Kok 1810, they surrendered to the Portuguese Navy on January 21 and later accepted an amnesty offered by the Qing Imperial government to all pirates who agreed to surrender, ending their career and allowed to keep the loot that same year. This amnesty allowed only 60 pirates to be banished, 151 to be exiled, and only 126 to be put to death out of her whole fleet of 17,318 pirates. The remaining pirates only had to surrender their weapons. Cheung Po Tsai changed back to his former name, and was capitulated to the Qing Dynasty government. He became a captain in the Qing's Guangdong navy.
Late life and deathEdit
Ching Shih and Cheung Po asked the governor of Guangdong Zhang Bailing to dissolve their mother and son relationship and allow them to be married, which the governor granted and witnessed. Ching Shih used her loot to open a gambling house. In 1813, Ching Shih gave birth to a son, Cheung Yu Lin. She would later have a daughter who was born at an unknown date.
In 1844, she died in bed surrounded by her family in Macau, at the age of 69.
A semi-fictionalized account of Ching Shih's piracy appeared in Jorge Luis Borges's short story The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate (part of A Universal History of Infamy (1935)), where she is described as "a lady pirate who operated in Asian waters, all the way from the Yellow Sea to the rivers of the Annam coast", and who, after surrendering to the imperial forces, is pardoned and allowed to live the rest of her life as an opium smuggler. Borges acknowledged the 1932 book The History of Piracy, by Philip Gosse (grandson of the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse), as the source of the tale.
In The Wake of the Lorelei Lee, book 8 of L.A. Meyer's Bloody Jack series, Jacky is captured by Ching Shih and so impresses her that the pirate bestows her with a tattoo of a dragon on the back of her neck to indicate she is under Shih's protection.
A character loosely based on Ching Shih appears in the 2007 film Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Played by Takayo Fischer Mistress Ching is portrayed as one of the 9 Pirate Lords of the Brethren Court and the powerful leader of the pirate confederation of China. The character also appears in 2 tie-in books, Rising in the East and The Price of Freedom.
Puppetmongers Theatre of Toronto, Canada, mounted 2 different productions based on Ching Shih's life. The first was a co-production with the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, directed by Jon Ludwig in 2000, and the second version, directed by Mark Cassidy played at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre Extra Space in 2002.
On March 19, 2018, a character who references the real-life Ching Shih, named "Madame Shih" was added to the MMORPG Runescape, debuting in a pirate-themed quest titled "Pieces of Hate". She goes on to feature in another quest, released on February 25, 2019, titled "Curse of the Black Stone". In both quests she's captured, but eventually escapes with help from the player, possibly referencing Ching Shih's knack for getting out of all sorts of dangerous situations.
The short story, "The Difficult Path" by Grace Lin (in the collection Flying Lessons & Other Stories edited by Ellen Oh) is loosely based on stories about Ching Shih. It's in a collection of diverse short stories for middle grade readers.
The podcast, The History Chicks covered Ching Shih in a March 2019 episode. 
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