Ching Shih: Pirate Queen

No one shall satisfy [their] lust with captured women in the villages or public places. On board, the permission of the squadron leader must be obtained for this purpose, and the act performed aside, in the ship’s hold.”

– Ching Shih, commander of the Red Flag Fleet

Ching Shih is without a doubt the most successful female pirate in history. The little information historians have gathered about her paints an intimidating picture of a fearless warrior, with impressive leadership skills, business acumen and a unique moral compass.

Ching Shih, or Madame Ching or Cheng I Sao, first became known to history in 1801, marking the year she married her husband, the notorious pirate Cheung Po Tsai. Before their marriage, Ching Shih worked as a prostitute in a floating brothel in Guangzhou. She was a shrewd businesswoman, and used the secrets she learned from her well-connected clients to her own advantage.  How Ching Shih became known to Cheung Po Tsai is not certain. What history does know is she went from being a prostitute to the wife of pirate leader in a Pretty-Woman-esque twist of fate. Some accounts report Cheung Po Tsai had his men loot the brothel Ching Shih worked at with orders to bring her to him. While others record he simply proposed, without the side plot of pillaging and violence.

Ching Shih came to the marriage proposal ready to negotiate and would only accept Cheung Po Tsai’s hand if he granted her an equal partnership in his fleet. Ching Shih obviously knew what she was doing because Cheung Po Tsai agreed to these terms. Together the couple reigned over the Red Flag Fleet and the Southern China seas, with anything from 200 – 1,800 ships at any given time. Six years after they married Cheung died. Once again the narrative is unclear as to the cause of death. However most accounts record he drowned during a tsunami.

Cheung Po Tsai’s demise may have spelt the end of Ching Shih’s time as a pirate overlord, if it were not for her sheer determination and unquestionable leadership that spurred her forward. Following the death of her husband Ching Shih was determined to remain in power. In order to make a smooth transition, she married her husband’s right-hand man. Unlike the West, there was no stigma attached to women living on board vessels in the Chinese community. Men and women worked alongside each other as equals. In this context, Ching Shih’s rise to leadership is not as surprising. The real surprise was the success with which she ran the Red Flag Fleet. Her ultimate pirate queen status was partly attributable to her law-making and law-enforcing role. Ching Shih ruled a tight ship with a famously strict pirate code, that when broken, resulted in brutal and usually final consequences.

Many of Ching Shih’s behavioural codes were unsurprising. We have all seen Pirates of the Caribbean, we know how swash-buckling goes down. Any pirate that disobeyed her orders was to be beheaded on the spot. All looting and raids had to be approved by her first. Eye witnesses of the raids reported violence, murder, kidnapping and the burning of villages.

There were some less-common behavioural standards required of her crew. For example, Ching Shih fairly distributed loot, and implemented organised business systems. Any loot ships acquired had to be presented to the fleet and registered before distribution. The ship responsible for acquiring the loot could keep 20 percent and remaining 80 percent was put into the collective fund.

Unusually, rape and even consensual sex with female captives was forbidden. The penalty for rape was death for the male and the penalty for consensual sex was death for both parties.

Ulrike Klausmann reports in Women Pirates that Ching Shih ordered, “No one shall satisfy [their] lust with captured women in the villages or public places. On board, the permission of the squadron leader must be obtained for this purpose, and the act performed aside, in the ship’s hold.”

Ching Shih allowed marriage on board. If a pirate decided to take a female captive as his wife, he had to remain faithful to her. Unfaithfulness was also an offence punishable by death. One can only imagine the scenes of violence and rape that took place on most pirate ships during the era. It is puzzling and admirable that Ching Shih made such an obscure rule part of her strict pirate code. I personally like to speculate, based on what is known about Ching Shih and her life before piracy, that she made rape, non-consensual sex and adultery an offence due to her experiences working in a brothel. Regardless of her motivations, whether they were to protect the women on board, to prevent distraction, or a method to increase violence during raids due to repressed sexual frustration, Ching Shih’s laws would have resulted in the better treatment of women on board her ships. 

Ching did not let her points of difference end there. She enjoyed the luxury of being able to retire from piracy after accepting an offer of amnesty from the Chinese government in 1810. Her life after piracy is shrouded in mystery, much like the rest of her life. Nevertheless, she is an example of a woman that took opportunities, leaned in, negotiated and improved the lives of women by being in leadership.

This post is dedicated to my dear friend Sandy who is in China visiting her family. I hope you are having an amazing time and that mosquito bite on your lip goes down.

Extra for experts:

Read

Urviga Banerji, The Chinese Female Pirate Who Commanded 80,000 Outlaws, 6 April 2016.

Laura Sook Duncombe Cheng I Sao, the Vicious Pirate Who Banned Rape in Her 50,000-Man Fleet, Jezebel.com, 9 December 2014.

Krissy HowardThe Story Of Ching Shih, Prostitute Turned Lord Of The Pirates, 10 February 2017.

Ann Shen, Bad Girls Through History, 2016.

Watch

Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End (the pirate queen in the movie is inspired by Ching Shih. I am in the minority, but I am also of the correct opinion that this is the best film in the franchise).

Comments

  1. I really enjoyed reading this! She is so badass!
    Just wondering why pirates even took women captives if they weren’t allowed to have sex with them….entertainment? I don’t think a pirate life is for me sounds terrifying!

Leave a Comment

*