It’s no secret that several of the most renowned pirates in history have been women. But while the Western Hemisphere saw the likes of Anne Bonney and Grace O’Malley, the Eastern Hemisphere had, among others, Ching Shih. Of course, it’s unfair to limit Ching to the Eastern Hemisphere, because as long as there was water for her ships to float, she went as she pleased. But what do we know about this pirate queen? What aspects of her endure to this day? Here are 42 facts about Ching Shih, China’s pirate queen.
1. How it All Began
It’s never been determined what Ching Shih’s exact birthday is, but the year she was born was 1775. Her birthplace was Guangzhou, which is currently the capital of the Chinese province Guangdong.
2. Holy Matrimony
The first time that Ching Shih made history was when she married Cheng I, a notorious pirate who was actually following a piracy tradition in his family. Such was Cheng I’s power and reputation that he gave himself a royal moniker. To be fair, who was going to object to his face? Ching Shih certainly wouldn’t.
3. Ring the Bells
Before she met Cheng I, Ching Shih was actually working as a prostitute under the nickname Shih Heang Koo. Why Cheng I fell so hard for her that he married her is unclear to this day. Some say she was just that good-looking that he just had to marry her. Others say that it was because he rightly recognized her incredible cunning and resourcefulness as befitting a useful partner. Either way, the two were hitched in 1801.
4. Did They Also Have Water Beds?
Interestingly, the brothel where Ching Shih worked was actually a floating pleasure palace. In Chinese culture, these were called “flower boats,” and they would sail along the coast to pick up customers.
5. You and What Army?
It’s not known just how many pirates took orders from Ching Shih at the height of her power, but the number is estimated as being between 20,000-40,0000 people. No wonder they call her a pirate queen!
6. Sweet Deal
Ching Shih had no intention of being eye candy on her pirate hubby’s arm. When they first got married, it was clear that she would have 50% control of his stuff, and she was definitely an active partner in Cheng I’s piracy.
7. The Chinese Daenerys and Khal Drogo
Over the span of just a few years, Ching Shih and Cheng I assembled an enormous fleet of various pirate ships who would normally be competing with each other. These included various members of Cheng I’s family—we weren’t kidding about them being a family of pirates. By 1804, the Red Flag Fleet, as it was called, was the biggest pirate fleet ever seen in China.
8. The Ching Shih Maneuver
In 1807, Ching Shih’s husband, Cheng I, died while he was in Vietnam. Ching Shih managed to win over factions loyal to Cheng I, including his nephew and cousins, to secure command of the fleet.
9. Good Old Cheung Po
One important figure in Ching Shih’s life was Cheung Po Tsai, with whom she would have a long-lasting intimate relationship. He served as her second-in-command during all the major battles that she fought as the leader of a pirate fleet. In other instances, Ching Shih made Cheung Po Tsai the chief captain by proxy.
She would give him orders and he would repeat the orders to those pirates who would have refused to obey a woman—we can’t imagine they got far in life, though. Of course, his relationship with Ching Shih was far more dynamic than just being her right-hand man…
Those of you familiar with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise might vaguely recall a minor Chinese woman who was one of the great pirate lords present in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Identified as “Mistress Cheng,” this character was a reference to Ching Shih herself. We’d argue that she got short-changed by Hollywood, but given the quality drop in the Pirates movies after the first one, maybe she was the lucky one!
11. Total Domination
Under Ching Shih’s direction, the Red Flag Fleet launched itself against coastal towns all across China. Any resistance was put down, people were held for ransom, tributes were demanded, and any forces sent by the Chinese government were defeated in battle.
12. Starting a Family
Ching Shih and Cheng I had two sons together: Cheng Ying Shi and Cheng Heung Shi. Little is known about them, but we can only assume that they entered the family business.
13. As Played by Maggie
In 2015, actress Maggie Q starred in a Hong Kong drama series titled Captain of Destiny. In this series loosely based on history, Q portrayed a character who was very obviously based on Ching Shih, though the details of her life were liberally adapted. It wasn’t the first time that Q was set to channel Ching Shih’s spirit for the silver screen. The previous year, she’d been set to star as Ching Shih for the limited series Red Flag.
14. Get Out While It’s Good
Ching Shih’s career as a pirate queen came to an end in 1809 after an intense series of battles with the Portuguese Navy. Surrendering to the Portuguese, Ching Shih was then offered a deal by the Qing Dynasty in China. If the pirates surrendered their weapons, amnesty would be granted to the thousands of pirates under her command, with fewer than 300 of those pirates receiving any sort of punishment for their actions. Ching Shih decided that she’d enough fun over the two years as pirate queen, and accepted the deal to keep her wealth and position.
15. Don’t Cross Me!
One of Ching Shih’s major actions as pirate queen was the code of rules that she imposed on the pirates under her command. Among other things, pirates couldn’t disobey orders, they couldn’t steal from their own allies, they couldn’t rape captives, and if they took captives as their wives, they couldn’t abuse or cheat on their new wives. Punishments for breaking the rules included floggings, beheadings, and bodily harm.
16. All’s Well That Ends Well
Ching Shih and Cheung Po Tsai would be married for more than ten years. In 1813, they would welcome their first child, a son named Cheung Yu Lin, followed by a daughter, whose birthdate has sadly been lost to history. The descendants of Ching Shih and Cheung Po Tsai live in Macau, China to this day.
17. Your Majesty
Based on the huge numbers of pirates that Ching Shih commanded in her heyday and the fact that she managed to retire and live peacefully after her pirate career, it’s been accepted by many historians that Ching Shih was the most successful pirate in human history.
18. Quietly into that Goodnight
After years of taking on the Chinese government, the East India Company, and the Portuguese Navy, it might have baffled some people to think that Ching Shih died peacefully. But that’s exactly what she did in 1844 at the age of 69, surrounded by her surviving family.
19. From Illegal Thievery to Legal Thievery
When she put the pirate life behind her, one benefit granted to Ching Shih was the right to keep all the wealth that she’d accumulated. Of course, lying on a pile of money gets boring after a while, so Ching Shih opened up a gambling house. After the tragic death of her second husband at sea in 1822, Ching Shih relocated her family and opened another gambling house in Macau.
20. Who Needs a Hobby?
Gambling wasn’t Ching Shih’s only venture into the world of business. She got herself involved in Macau’s salt trade. And in a case of a story coming full circle, Ching Shih also opened up a brothel in Macau.
21. And Stay Out!
Because of British interest in China, they became involved in the attempt to bring down Ching Shih. Ching Shih proved her mettle against the British when she successfully captured seven British sailors and one official from the East India Company in 1809. We can only imagine how big of a smirk she had when it came time to ransom those hostages.
22. We Know Which Version We’ll Take
Sources are unsure of just how Cheung Po Tsai and Ching Shih first met. One version of history is that Ching Shih and her first husband Cheng I stole Cheung Po when he was a child and began to raise him as their own son—making Ching Shih’s later relationship with him obviously highly questionable. Other sources maintain that Cheng I and Cheung Po Tsai were lovers first, and Cheng I adopted him so that he would be legally recognized in case Cheng I died. Reportedly, this was a common strategy amongst bisexual and gay couples in Chinese history.
23. Happy Ending
Whether Cheung Po Tsai was originally Ching Shih’s adopted son or her first husband’s ex, their ending is the same. After years of working together as pirate lovers (which sounds like a particularly pretentious metal album title), Ching Shih was still recognized as Cheung Po Tsai’s mother in the eyes of Chinese law. When she took the offer of amnesty, Ching Shih requested that this mother-son status be removed so that she could legally marry Cheung Po Tsai.
The request was granted by provincial governor Zhang Bailing and the marriage went forward. Zhang Bailing himself witnessed the wedding ceremony, though maybe he just wanted to remind them not to go sailing for their honeymoon.
24. The War on Drugs
Even in retirement, Ching Shih couldn’t stay away from the action and the good fights. In 1839, the Chinese government was so fed up with the rampant use of opium that they tried to have the drug banned. The British, who were making a bundle off getting China hooked on opium, actually started a war to improve “diplomatic relations” with China. Despite her less-than-straight-arrow reputation, Ching Shih entered the fray as a military advisor to military leader Lin Zexu. Sadly, the British ultimately won that war, presumably leading Ching Shih to sigh and say, “I’m too old for this.”
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