Ching Shih: The Pirate Admiral

An 18th century line drawing of Chinese pirates rowing in a small boat to attack a larger ship.

Chinese Pirates!

Last week a feminist ninja, this week, it’s pirates!

Imagine, if you will, Al Capone.

Yes, yes, I know this blog is about ladies. Indulge me.

Imagine Al Capone.

Now imagine that, instead of running Chicago’s Mafia, Capone comes to control most of the criminal gangs operating in America. He destroys or absorbs his rivals, to the point where more gangsters work for him than are enlisted in the US Army. The FBI requests help from Canada, Mexico and Britain to bring him down, but that only results in a bunch of cops either dead or press-ganged into working for the Mob.

Capone wants to retire. And rather than buying a private island, he decides he’d prefer to stay in the US. Instead of dying in jail from syphilis, he works out a deal with the government. He gets a nice mansion in Napa Valley, with a generous pension. Oh, and his children all get cushy government jobs. The sort where they can show up at 10, take a leisurely lunch, leave at 4 and draw down a nice paycheck anyway. Capone spends his retirement tending bar until he passes away quietly of old age, filthy rich.

Awesome, right?

A printing on yellowed paper of a Chinese woman in armor, holding a sword.

Ching Shih

Meet Ching Shih, the most successful pirate captain in the history of ever.

Most of what we know of Ching Shih comes from the accounts of Westerners who were ‘honored guests’ of the Red Flag Fleet. As a result, there are a few gaps in her story – like what her real name was. ‘Ching Shih’ just means she was some dude’s widow. And who cares about that guy? This lady was spectacularly awesome!

(Okay, Wikipedia gives her birth name as ‘Sehk Heonggu’, but the source for that assertion isn’t cited, and every other source admits they don’t know what she was called before ‘Ching Shih.’ So I’ll continue to use that name for her, if only because that’s her most-recognized Anglicized name).

Nothing is known of Ching Shih’s parentage. The first we know of Ching Shih is her appearance in a brothel, so perhaps those were her origins. Or perhaps she found herself turning to sex work as a way to support herself. The only safe assumptions we may make is that Ching Shih’s  childhood imparted her with an iron will and the attitude that the world would give her nothing – whatever she wanted, she would have to take.

A drawing of a Chinese junk on a red backgroundDuring her time as a sex worker, Ching Shih no doubt cultivated several regular visitors – men with whom she had a rapport, and hopefully a mutually enjoyable experience. One of her regulars was Cheng I, a notorious pirate who commanded the Red Flag Fleet, a pirate navy of approximately 400 ships. In fact, Ching Shih was Cheng I’s favorite prostitute; and in 1801, during a raid on Ching Shih’s hometown, he ordered his men to spare her and bring her to his ship. There, they were married.

Cheng I also had an adopted son, Cheung Po Tsai. According to some accounts, Cheng I and Cheung Po Tsai were lovers, and the adoption a convenient cover for their relationship. Even more salacious gossip is that Ching Shih and Cheung Po Tsai were also lovers – at the very least, we know Ching Shih married Cheung Po Tsai after Cheng I’s death, and even had a son by him when she was 38.

Unfortunately, whatever domestic arrangement which Ching Shih, Cheng I and Cheung Po Tsai came to did not last long – in 1807, Cheng I died in a typhoon off the coast of Vietnam.

Ching Shih moved quickly, securing the loyalty of not only Cheung Po Tsai, but also several other highly ranked members of the Red Flag Fleet. As they acknowledged her as leader, other captains soon fell in line, and Ching Shih found her power consolidated as the admiral of the Red Flag Fleet.

A black and white 18th century drawing of Ching Shih fighting another Chinese pirate with a saber.By 1810, Ching Shih had several thousand vessels under her command. The exact number fluctuates from account to account, but average out to ‘more ships than the Chinese Navy,’ and more than enough to ensure Ching Shih her position as the unquestioned ruler of criminality in South China. She even had land-based spies; government officials who’d happily tip her off when the Navy decided to go pirate-hunting.

Paradoxically enough, the South China sea became one of the safest stretches of ocean under her rule. Merchant ships needed only to pay Ching Shih a tribute in order to peacefully pass through. Towns which paid a similar tribute were also spared the raids which the Red Flag Fleet would occasionally use to get supplies (because why pay for food and water when you’re a pirate?).

Ching Shih maintained her control in part with a brutal code of laws among her crew. Most infractions (abandoning one’s post, raiding or a ship or town current on their protection payments, stealing loot), were punishable with beheading and/or being tossed overboard. Notably, perhaps influenced by her time in a brothel, Ching Shih also outlawed rape – any man so caught would find himself quickly relieved of his head, and both pieces thrown in the ocean. And while attractive captured women were still treated as booty, they were not treated as concubines. Sailors were expected to marry the women so taken, and to treat their wives kindly. I have to wonder how many of these women eventually became pirates themselves.

A Chinese woman looks into the distance, next to a cannon.Absolutely no one could stand against Ching Shih. Two towns, tired of paying tribute, instead put their money towards hiring a group of mercenaries to take her out. Ching Shih responded by killing the mercenaries, then proceeded to sack the offending towns and murder every adult male living there. The record doesn’t state, but considering her favorite method of execution was beheading, I’m betting the phrase ‘pyramid of skulls’ applied at some point. The towns probably should have just kept paying protection money.

In another incident, the Chinese Navy loaded a few ships up with straw, set them on fire, and pointed them in the general direction of the Red Flag Fleet. Her crew simply extinguished the flames, then thanked the government for the gift. Later, the Chinese asked the British, Dutch and Portuguese for help. As a result… well, most of what we know of Ching Shih comes from a few literate European sailors who wrote down their experiences while waiting for the ransom money to arrive.

A still from Singing Behind Screens. The character of Ching Shih wears a red robe and an elaborate Chinese hairstyle. She glances behind her, to other sailors on her ship, dressed very plainly.Around age 35, Ching Shih decided to retire. As part of her retirement package, she negotiated a general amnesty with the Chinese government. A few of the badder apples (100 or so, out of a crew of approximately 100,000), were offered up for execution. The rest were allowed to retire peaceably from pirating, with many even joining the Navy. Cheung Po Tsai was made an admiral himself, and spent the rest of his career hunting… other pirates. Oh, and everyone got to keep their treasure.

Ching Shih spent the rest of her life running a brothel and gambling den in Guangzhou, dying eventually at age 69 – perhaps one of the only pirates to die warm in bed of old age.

In 2003, an Italian film, Cantando dietro i paraventi (Singing Behind Screens) was released, loosely based on a Jorge Luis Borges story which was itself loosely based on the life of Ching Shih. Unfortunately, I couldn’t track down this film for either stream or sale – if you know where it can be legally watched (hopefully in English, or at least with English subtitles), please let us know in the comments! She also has a cameo in Assassin’s Creed and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (though the film version of Mistress Ching is anachronistic in more than few ways, it’s still neat to have her acknowledged).Singing_Behind_Screens

Red Flag, a TV minieries starring Maggie Q as Ching Shih, is set to debut later this year! You can also find this handy guide to dressing up like Ching Shih at Take Back Halloween.

And while not explicitly based on Ching Shih, the character of Zamira Drakasha in Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies seems to have been inspired by the pirate admiral. As for me, I used her as inspiration in the LARP Dying Kingdoms, as a notorious pirate commodore from the fictional, Chinese-inspired nation of Xiao. When she shows up, the players know it’s time to get serious!


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