Today marks the Chinese New Year. On this day, I decided to write about a fascinating Cantonese woman whose story is an exceptional one.
Throughout history, there have always been women who pushed back against the roles society set for them.
Ching Shih was a prostitute working for a small brothel in Guangzhou who was captured by pirates. She eventually married Cheng I, a notorious pirate whose family criminal origins dates back to the 17th century, but only after he agreed that she would have some power within his organisation and would receive an equal share of his plunder. Ching, therefore, participated fully in her husband’s piracy, becoming a powerful female pirate in her own right. They commanded the “Red Flag Flee” together. They were the power couple of piracy.
In 1807, Cheng I died in Vietnam. Ching immediately began manoeuvring her way into his leadership position. She cultivated personal relationships to get rivals to recognise her status and solidify her position.
She became a real-life pirate queen who commanded a fleet of 70,000 and terrorised the China Sea in the early 19th century. She commanded an armada called the “Red Flag Fleet” consisting of a rumoured 1800 ships and 80 thousand men.
Once in power, she united the fleet by issuing a code of laws. Anyone disobeying would be beheaded on the spot. Ching focused on business and military strategy. The fleet grew under her command. She established leadership in many coastal villages. She couldn’t be defeated. She was soon called “The Terror of South China”.
In 1810, the Chinese government offered amnesty to all pirate, Ching accepted it, but only after negotiating her right to maintain the riches and power she earned as a pirate queen. She took her retirement that same year. She kept her loot and opened a gambling house.
She is considered one of the most prosperous pirates in history.