Ching Shih

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Ching Shih
Native name
simplified Chinese: 郑氏; traditional Chinese: 鄭氏; pinyin: zhèng shì
Shih Yang (simplified Chinese: 石阳; traditional Chinese: 石陽; pinyin: shí yáng)

1775 (1775)
Died1844 (aged 68–69)
Occupationbusinesswoman (salt trader, gambling house owner, brothel owner), former pirate, former prostitute
Known forwell known female Chinese pirate
Criminal chargepiracy
Criminal penaltydeath penalty
Criminal statusamnestied
Cheng I
(m. 1801; died 1807)

Cheung Po Tsai
(m. 1810; died 1822)
  • Cheng Ying Shih (son)
  • Cheng Heung Shih (son)
  • Cheung Yu Lin (son)
  • 1 daughter
Piratical career
NicknameShih Heang Koo (Chinese: 石香姑; pinyin: shí xiāng gū)
Other namesChing I Sao (simplified Chinese: 郑一嫂; traditional Chinese: 鄭一嫂; pinyin: zhèng yī sǎo)
Ching Shih Shih (simplified Chinese: 郑石氏; traditional Chinese: 鄭石氏; pinyin: zhèng shí shì)
AllegianceRed Flag Fleet
Years active1801–1810
Rankfleet commander
Base of operationsSouth China Sea
CommandsRed Flag Fleet (300 ships of 20,000-40,000 pirates)
Battles/warsBattle of the Tiger's Mouth
Naval Battle of Chek Lap Kok
Later workgambling house owner at Guangzhou
gambling house and brothel owner, salt trader at Macao
military advisor

Ching Shih [1]:65 (simplified Chinese: 郑氏; traditional Chinese: 鄭氏; pinyin: Zhèng Shì; literally: "widow of Zheng") (born Shih Yang (simplified Chinese: 石阳; traditional Chinese: 石陽; pinyin: shí yáng; 1775–1844), also known as Cheng I Sao (simplified Chinese: 郑一嫂; traditional Chinese: 鄭一嫂; pinyin: zhèng yī sǎo; literally: "wife of Cheng I"), was a 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[1]: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.[2]

Ching Shih 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.

Early life[edit]

She was born Shih Yang (simplified Chinese: 石阳; traditional Chinese: 石陽; pinyin: shí yáng; Jyutping: sek6 joeng4) in 1775 in the Guangdong province. She was a Cantonese prostitute or madame nicknamed Shih Heang Koo (Chinese: 石香姑; pinyin: shí xiāng gū; Jyutping: sek6 hoeng1 gu1, IPA: [sɛk˨ hœŋ˥ ku˥])[3] who worked in a floating brothel in Guangzhou.[2] In 1801, she married Cheng I, a notorious pirate.

Marriage to Cheng I[edit]

The Cheng family of the Pirates on the China Sea genealogy

Cheng I was from a family of notorious pirates whose roots trace back to the mid-seventeenth 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",[1]:71 was known as Cheng I Sao (simplified Chinese: 郑一嫂; traditional Chinese: 鄭一嫂; pinyin: zhèng yī sǎo; literally: "wife of Cheng I"). They adopted Cheung Po as their step-son, making him Cheng's fully legal heir. She also bore him two sons; Cheng Ying Shih (simplified Chinese: 郑英石; traditional Chinese: 鄭英石; pinyin: zhèng yīng shí) and Cheng Heung Shih (simplified Chinese: 郑雄石; traditional Chinese: 鄭雄石; pinyin: Zhèng xióng shí). 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.[1]:71

Ascension to leadership[edit]

On 16 November 1807, Cheng I died in Vietnam at 39.[4] 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.[5] 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.[1]: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,[6] but he would remain loyal to her and be accepted by the low-level pirates.[1]:71

Code of laws[edit]

Once she held the fleet's leadership position, Ching Shih started the task of uniting the fleet by issuing a code of laws.[7]: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.[8] Yuan Yung-lun says that Cheung issued his own code of three regulations, called san-t'iao, for his own fleet, but these are not known to exist in a written form.[4] The code was very strict and according to Richard Glasspoole, strictly enforced.[9]

First, anyone giving their own orders (ones that did not come down from Ching Shih) or disobeying those of a superior was beheaded on the spot.

Second, no one was to steal from the public fund or any villagers that supplied the pirates.[4]

Third, 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 twenty percent and the rest was placed into the public fund.

Fourth, 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.[4][7]: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.[7]: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.[10] 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.[4][7]:29[10]

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."[9]

Piratical career[edit]

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."[11] 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.[12]

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.[13]

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.[14][15] She captured Richard Glasspoole, an officer of the East India Company ship The Marquis of Ely, and seven British sailors in 1809.[8]

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 on January 1810, they surrendered to the Portuguese Navy in 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.[16] 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.[12] 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 death[edit]

Ching Shih and Cheung Po asked the governor of Guangdong Zhang Bailing [zh] to dissolve their mother and son relationship and allow them to be married, which the governor granted. Ching Shih and Cheung Po were soon married with the governor himself as witness. 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.

After Cheung Po died at sea in 1822, Ching Shih moved the family to Macau and opened a gambling house and a brothel.[17] She was also involved in the salt trade there.[18]

In her later years, she even served as a military advisor to Lin Zexu in battling the British Army during the First Opium War which broke out in 1839.[19]

In 1844, she died in bed surrounded by her family in Macau, at the age of 69.[17]

Cultural references[edit]

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.[20]

In Chapter 15 of Codename: Sailor V, a manga created by Naoko Takeuchi, Sailor V transforms temporarily into the Ching Shih.

In 2003, Ermanno Olmi made a film, Singing Behind Screens, loosely based on Borges's retelling, though rights problems prevented the Argentine writer from appearing in the credits.[21][22]

Afterlife, a 2006 OEL graphic novel, depicts Ching Shih as a guardian who fights demons to protect the denizens of the underworld.

In The Wake of the Lorelei Lee, book eight 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 nine Pirate Lords of the Brethren Court and the powerful leader of the pirate confederation of China. The character also appears in two tie-in books, Rising in the East and The Price of Freedom.

Puppetmongers Theatre of Toronto, Canada, mounted two 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.

In the 2015 Hong Kong television drama Captain of Destiny, Maggie Shiu plays a character who is based on Ching Shih.

Red Flag, a limited series which centers on Ching Shih, starring Maggie Q and Francois Arnaud, was scheduled to start filming in the fall of 2014 in Malaysia.[23]

In September 2017, on his "History on Fire" podcast Daniele Bolelli released a 2 hr 15min episode about Ching Shih and her pirate confederacy. The episode is called "The Pirate Queen."[24]

On January 27, 2018, Ching Shih was featured on the 153rd episode of the YouTube series Extra Credits, titled "Cheng I Sao - Pirate Queen".[25]

On April 2, 2018, Ching Shih was featured on a TED-Ed Youtube video, titled "The most successful pirate of all time", the lesson made by Dian Murray.[26]

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 is in a collection of diverse short stories for middle grade readers.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Murray, Dian (1987). Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790-1810. Stanford University Press. ISBN 978-0-8047-1376-4.
  2. ^ a b Lily Xiao Hong Lee, A. D. Stefanowska, Clara Wing-chung Ho - 2003 - 387 pages
  3. ^ "Cheng I Sao, Female Pirate Extraordinaire". JSTOR Daily. 2017-07-13. Retrieved 2018-03-03.
  4. ^ a b c d e Yuan Yung-lun. Ching hai-fen chi (Record of the Pacification of the Pirates).
  5. ^ Lu K'un, Ch'eng, Kwang-tung hai-fang hui-lan (An Examination of Kwangtung's Sea Defense)
  6. ^ Koerth, Maggie (2007-08-27). "Most successful pirate was beautiful and tough". CNN. Retrieved 2018-04-03.
  7. ^ a b c d Maughan, Philip (1812). "An Account of the Ladrones Who Infested the Coast of China". Further Statement of the Ladrones on the Coast of China. London: Lane, Darling.
  8. ^ a b Murray, Dian (April 2001). "Cheng I Sao in Fact and Fiction". In Pennell, C.R. Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader. pp. 260–261. ISBN 978-0-8147-6679-8.
  9. ^ a b Glasspoole, Richard. "Substance": 44–45.
  10. ^ a b Turner, J. (c. 1809). "Account of the Captivity of J. J. Turner, Chief Mate of the Ship Tay, Amongst the Ladrones". London: T. Tegg: 71.
  11. ^ Antony, Robert (2003). Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The world of pirates and seafarers in Late Imperial South China. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-1-55729-078-6.
  12. ^ a b Vallar, Cindy. "Pirates & Privateers: The History of Maritime Piracy - Cheng I Sao". Retrieved 2018-03-03.
  13. ^ Ossian, Rob. "Cheng I Sao". Retrieved 2018-03-03.
  14. ^ "Woman Becomes One of World's Most Powerful Pirates ⋆ History Channel". 20 June 2016.
  15. ^ Gail Selinger; W. Thomas Smith, Jr. (2006). The Complete Idiot's Guide to Pirates. Alpha Books. p. 338. ISBN 978-1-59257-376-9.
  16. ^ Andrea J. Buchanan, Miriam Peskowitz - 2007 - 279 page
  17. ^ a b Koerth, Maggie (2007-08-28). "Most successful pirate was beautiful and tough". CNN. Retrieved 2007-08-28.
  18. ^ 104098. "盘点古代女富豪:寡妇清身家约白银8亿万两--文史--人民网". Retrieved 2018-11-01.
  19. ^ "中国历史上最强女海盗:曾只身俘获英国军舰-搜狐军事频道". Retrieved 2018-11-01.
  20. ^ Borges, Jorge Luis (1972). A Universal History of Infamy. Dutton.
  21. ^ Cantando dietro i paraventi on IMDb
  22. ^ Weissberg, Jay (23 October 2003). "Singing Behind Screens". Variety.
  23. ^ "Francois Arnaud To Co-Star In Limited Series 'Red Flag'". Deadline Hollywood. 28 March 2014. Retrieved 14 October 2016.
  24. ^ "The Pirate Queen".
  25. ^ Cheng I Sao - Pirate Queen
  26. ^ TED-Ed (2018-04-02), The most successful pirate of all time - Dian Murray, retrieved 2018-08-07