Tuesday, September 27, 2022




Ching Shih, also known as Zheng Yi Sao (1775–1844) was a Chinese pirate leader who was active in the South China Sea from 1801 to 1810.

  • A Chinese prostitute, she married a pirate named Zheng Yi at age 26 in 1801. She was renowned for beauty, intelligence and business acumen.
  • She was named Zheng Yi Sao ("wife of Zheng Yi") by the people of Guangdong.
  • After the death of her husband in 1807, she took control of his pirate confederation with the support of his adopted son Zhang Bao, with whom she entered into a relationship and later married.
  • As the unofficial commander of the Guangdong Pirate Confederation, her fleet (known as the Red Flag Fleet) was composed of 400 junks and between 40,000 to 60,000 pirates in 1805.
  • Her ships entered into conflict with several major powers, such as the East India Company, the Portuguese Empire, and Qing China.
  • She ran her ships with an iron fist and was super successful. Murder and torture were used by her when she thought the situation required.
  • As leader of the Red Flag Fleet, Ching Shih laid down a strict code of laws for her men in order to maintain unity and discipline in the fleet. The code was strictly enforced.
  • Anyone giving their own orders contrary to those given by a superior or, disobeying orders that came from a superior, was beheaded on the spot. 
  • A common collective fund was created for the use of the loot by all members of the Red Flag Fleet. After a piracy expedition, the loot was put up for group inspection. Then it was registered and accounted for by a purser and then distributed by the fleet leader. The ship that brought a particular lot of loot was paid twenty percent of the amount and the rest eighty percent went into the common fund.  Anybody withholding booty for the first time was whipped and afterwards was beheaded. In case of withholding large amount, even first-time offenders could be beheaded. 
  • Deserters had their ears chopped off. 
  • No member of the pirate fleet was allowed to steal from the common fund or rob the villages that supplied the fleet.
  • If women were captured during a raid, the ones deemed unattractive were released unharmed and those deemed attractive were ransomed. Pirates raping women were beheaded, and if there was consensual sexual intercourse then the pirate was beheaded and the woman was thrown overboard with cannon balls tied to her legs. Any pirate wishing to take a captive woman as his wife could do so under the condition that he would have to be faithful to her all his life.
  • In 1808, the Qing dynasty government of China launched a naval expedition against the Red Flag Fleet, but it was defeated. The Qing imperial government reportedly had only boats left for its naval use after this expedition as all their ships were captured by her.

Cheng Shih depicted in an 1836 history of piracy
  • They fought for two years and even brought in Dutch and British ships.
  • From September 1809 to January 1810, the Red Flag Fleet suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the Portuguese navy flotilla stationed at the island of Macau. This series of battles is collectively known in Chinese history as the ‘Battle of the Tiger’s Mouth’. This made the fleet weak and it became impossible for Ching Shih to continue in the business of piracy.
  • Following her defeat in the Battle of the Tiger’s mouth, in the same year, she accepted an amnesty offer by the Qing imperial government that enabled her to surrender and retain the wealth earned from piracy. Her army of pirates was also pardoned and most of them had to merely surrender their weapons in exchange for their freedom.
  • At the time of her surrender, she personally commanded 24 ships and over 1,400 pirates.
  • She died in 1844 at the age of about 68, having lived a relatively peaceful and prosperous life since the end of her career in piracy, having owned and run a brothel and gambling den.
  • She has been described as history's most successful female pirate, and one of the most successful pirates in history.
  • She was also a pioneer, albeit in a life of crime and brutality, a powerful woman at a time when women in positions of power were a rarity. Especially in the world of crime in Asia, it was impossible for a woman to rise to the top given the various social and religious restrictions on wome
  • By the way:
Her descendants are said to be still living in and around Macau and involved in the casino business.

In Disney’s ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ franchise, she is the inspiration behind the character ‘Mistress Ching’, who is one of the nine pirate lords.

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