Sunday, September 25, 2022

HISTORY CORNER: China’s Pirate Queen Ching Shih

| February 20, 2022 1:00 AM

Zheng Yi Sao was born into a poor family in Canton, China, not far from Hong Kong in 1775. She is remembered as Ching Shih — the most successful pirate in history.

Everyone has heard of notorious pirates like Captain Kidd, Blackbeard, Henry Morgan, and some would add Sir Francis Drake — though he was a privateer appointed by Queen Elizabeth I as an “authorized pirate.”

But how many have heard of Ching Shih?

Captain Kidd had one ship and crew. Blackbeard had four, and Henry Morgan’s fleet was 36 ships and 1,800 men.

Ching Shih had as many as 1,800 ships and 80,000 under her command in a pirate navy called the Red Flag Fleet — and the navies of China and European nations couldn’t stop her 12-year reign of terror in the South China Sea.

They called her the Pirate Queen.

It took the Portuguese navy to force her to surrender, which she did only after demanding and receiving amazingly favorable conditions — walking away free and rich.

We know almost nothing about Ching Shih until she was 26 and working in a floating brothel in Canton about 1801. Those floating brothels were called “flower boats.” She’s variously described as a prostitute, and was rescued by a pirate commander in the Red Flag Fleet named Cheng I — or Zheng Yi — whose family had a long tradition of piracy.

“In a short span of time,” one report said, “young Ching Shih had become the talk of the town, due to her striking beauty, poised nature and lavish hospitality. This attracted several high-profile customers, which included courtiers of the royal palace, army military commanders, rich merchants visiting the port city and many more.”

There are two stories about how Cheng I rescued her.

One is that his ship dropped him off at the flower boat for a round of pleasure and he met Ching Shih, was smitten by her beauty and charm and offered to marry her.

Another story is that the flower boat was raided by Cheng I’s men who were ordered to abduct her.

Either way, she agreed to the marriage proposal — but only if he agreed to certain conditions.

She demanded half of his share of the pirate booty and would have a say in how the Red Flag Fleet was to be run.

No eye-candy life for her.

He accepted the conditions and they married in 1801.

It didn’t take long for Ching Shih to be noticed. She was beautiful, poised, highly intelligent and hospitable.

The marriage turned out to be a good deal for both of them. Her career toward becoming the most successful pirate of all time was launched, and he got a wife who excelled at business and pirating.

He only had 200 ships when they married, and she helped triple that within three years.

Though the couple’s piracy partnership worked well, it only lasted six years, when her husband died in 1807 at age 39.

He was father to her two children.

How he died is uncertain. Some say he died at sea because of a tsunami or typhoon, falling overboard in an accident or was killed by his wife.

Others say he was murdered in Vietnam — a known haven for pirates.

His demise left Ching Shih vulnerable to her power being usurped by ambitious commanders, but she was one jump ahead of them.

She quickly contacted Cheng I’s family and asked for their support — and they gave it.

Then the Ching Shih story gets murky:

Before they were married, Cheng adopted Cheng Po Tsai, a fisherman’s son. Some say he was being groomed to inherit the Red Flag Fleet.

“Unlike in the West, ‘adult’ adoption was often practiced in China in order to establish a kinship basis for further interaction, particularly of a business or discipleship sort,” says Dian Murray, history professor at the University of Notre Dame and authority on China's pirate past. “Cheng I adopting an adolescent fisherman’s son was not too out of the ordinary.”

Weeks after Cheng I died, Ching Shih took Cheng Po as her lover and later married him. But before she could do so, she asked the governor of Guangdong to dissolve their mother-and-son relationship, and allow them to be married.

The governor granted the request.

Knowing that men didn’t like taking orders from a woman, she authorized Cheng Po to announce many of her command orders — while she remained in the background.

To discourage ambitious leaders in her fleet from threatening her authority, she gave her main commanders their own Red Flag Fleet squadrons to command. Each squadron was assigned a color: The lead squadron commanded by Ching Shih and her husband was red. The others were black, white, blue, yellow and green.

She also created a strict code of discipline that was mercilessly enforced. It was simple, direct and made it clear that disobedience would be met with swift and often painful and lethal punishment.

For disobeying orders, raping captive women, marital infidelity and for repeated lesser offenses, offenders were beheaded and their bodies thrown into the water.

Deserters had their ears cut off.

Punishment was often carried out on the spot, when the offense was discovered.

“There were very specific rules, and if broken, punishments were harsh, often consisting of beheading,” one report explained. “With these rules, she showed no mercy. This caused her to be feared and respected among her fleet. She was so feared, that all raiding gains were presented to her before they were divided among the surviving pirates.”

Other rules included:

No looting from villagers who supported the Red Flag Fleet, or from the pirate general funds — called “public funds.”

All the loot was first inspected, then 20% awarded to the ship that obtained it, with the rest going to the public fund.

Any money looted was immediately given to the squadron leader, who shared a small portion to the finder. Failing to comply with this resulted in punishments ranging from a flogging to execution.

When females were captured, the homely ones were released unharmed. The pretty ones were sold or available to fleet members as wives or concubines — but marriage required the woman’s consent, and the husband was not allowed to mistreat her or be unfaithful.

Rape and infidelity earned a death sentence.

Ching Shih built her fleet by negotiation, or whenever a ship was captured, the crew was invited to join the fleet or be beheaded immediately.

For 12 years her pirates plundered coastal villages, attacked ships and demanded protection money.

When the Qing Emperor sent his fleet of 60 ships out to stop her, she captured them all. Even British and Dutch naval ships protecting their trade interest in China couldn’t stop her.

Finally, the Portuguese with a smaller navy of smaller ships armed with better firepower, outmaneuvered the slow, clumsy Chinese junks, and cornered the Red Flag Fleet in the Pearl River delta.

Ching Shih sat there bottled up for weeks and finally realized she’d lost for the first time and surrendered.

The emperor offered the pirates freedom, with only a few punished, if they quit pirating and surrendered their firearms — with the option of going home or joining the Qing Navy.

Ching Shih was allowed to keep her pirated wealth and was not punished — but she didn’t just retire into the sunset and fade from history.

She became a naval adviser to the emperor, opened a gambling house and brothel in Macao — then a Portuguese colony called an “overseas province” — engaged in the salt trade and then the lucrative opium trade, becoming probably the richest pirate of all time.

Her husband, Cheng Po, spent the rest of his life as a commander in the Emperor’s navy — chasing pirates. He died in 1822 — leaving a legacy of temples he built in the Hong Kong area.

Ching Shih outlived him by 22 years and died peacefully at home in Canton in 1844 at age 69.

Many historians have credited much of this same narrative to Cheng Po rather than to Ching Shih.

Since those days, piracy has continued around the world.

Bloomberg reports, “Globally, there is a strong connection between piracy and unstable governments, which provides opportunities for pirates to carry out attacks where the state is not strong enough to properly police its coastal waters.”

Do any of today’s pirates still fly the black skull and crossbones flag?

• • •

Contact Syd Albright at

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Tanka boat people…

Ching Shih may have been born a “Tanka," from the Chinese word for "egg" (dan), descriptive of the shape of their boat-homes and — like an egg — the fragile life they live in. They are found throughout Southeast Asia and are believed to have descended from the lower-class of ancient times.

Missing information…

The Ching Shih story doesn’t answer some questions — though the answers may be out there somewhere: Why would a fleet of 1,800 ships be necessary when the Red Flag Fleet only operated in a small geographic area. Where was she buried? Why would the Red Flag Feet attack local Chinese targets instead of focusing on foreign? Is there still piracy in China’s territorial waters?

Piracy today…

Piracy on the high seas is still prevalent today. The most dangerous areas are the west coast of sub-Sahara Africa, Somalia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and the Caribbean.

Women pirates…

There were female pirates serving in Ching Shih’s Red Flag Fleet. Having women on board was acceptable in China in those days, though not on American ships. There have been other lady pirates in history — including Grace O’Malley, Anne Bonney, Mary Reed and Rachel Wall, believed to be the first American female pirate.

Most dangerous piracy sea area today…

The Malacca Straits in the Indian Ocean between Malaysia and Sumatra had the highest number of sea piracy incidents in 2021. The IMB Piracy Reporting Centre received 132 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships…The rise in recent years attributable to an increase of piracy and armed robbery reported within the Gulf of Guinea, as well as increased armed robbery activity in the Singapore Straits.

— The Maritime Executive



Ching Shih was ruthless with pirates under her command who disobeyed her strict rules, especially if they abused women.



Scene from a movie showing Ching Shih in her later years before she retired from pirating and settled in Macao where she opened a gambling casino and then a brothel.



Fanciful depiction of Ching Shih in combat from “History of Pirates of all Nations” published in 1836, this image believed the only real depiction of her, drawn by an artist who knew the lady-pirate.



Part of the Qing Scroll on display at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.



Ching Shih is believed to have been born into a poor Tanka (boat people) family that lived their entire lives on the water, as depicted in this photo of Guangzhou (Canton), China (c.1900).



Starting as a teenager, Ching Shih worked as a prostitute on a floating brothel called a “flower boat” as depicted in this 1871 photo, until she was rescued by a patron who married her.



Ching Shih, China’s Pirate Queen, commanded a fleet of as many as 1,800 ships and 80,000 pirates.



Late in life, Ching Shih engaged in the opium trade, the drug much in demand in China, as depicted in this engraving of a Chinese opium den by Thomas Allom (1804-1872) (image 1858).



Painting of Canton in Guangdong Province in Hong Kong region in the 19th century, a crowded labyrinthine haven for pirates among thousands of small boats.



Photo of 19th century Canton, a perfect place for pirates, including Ching Shih, to hide and use as a base for launching attacks (c.1880).



Map of the Pearl River Delta that includes Canton (Guangzhou), Hong Kong and Macao, showing the myriad rivers and canals that made it an ideal pirate hideaway.



Cheung Po Tsai was the Chinese pirate and husband of Ching Shih and who later became a pirate-hunter, stashed some of his pirate loot in this cave on the small Cheung Chau Island, southwest of Hong Kong, the site now a tourist attraction.



There is still piracy on the high seas around the world, this photo shows catching pirates off the coast of Somalia.

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