Ching Shih, or as she was named, Shi Xianggu, has fascinated moviemakers and writers and artists for a while.
In Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) she was presented as Mistress Ching, one of the nine Pirate Lords of the Brethren Court. Some seventy years earlier Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine writer, portrayed her in his fictional short story La viuda Ching, pirata. Between and since, she’s been portrayed on TV, in manga, in theatres, and more.
And no wonder. Ching Shih is commonly held to be the most powerful and successful pirate in history. Not only that, her tale is also an astonishing rags-to-riches story wrought against incredible odds.
Let’s set the stage.
It is 1801, a couple of years after the death of the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing. China is starting its decline and the European merchant-adventurers are starting to press hard on its coasts. Imperial trade restrictions are a grand incentive to smugglers, but both the Qing army and navy are weakening. Piracy is big business in the South China Sea.
That year a 26-year-old Guangzhou prostitute named Shi Xianggu enters the history books. She is captured by pirates and, soon enough, marries Ching I, a powerful and notorious captain.
The details are not clear, but her charisma and intelligence certainly impressed him, and they quickly became a true power couple. By 1804 they had forged most of the Guangzhou pirate fleets into a coalition called the Red Flag Fleet.
In 1807 Ching I died in the seas off Vietnam and through deft maneuvering, skill, talent, and probably both luck and brutality, the young widow took control of the Red Flag Fleet. She was just 29 when she became known as Ching Shih (Widow Ching), Pirate Queen.
Let’s pause here for a moment.
This is 1807. A time when the British are binding women’s waists with corsets while the Chinese are binding women’s feet into horse-hoof shoes. At a time of ‘civilized’ men actively crippling women, so they could neither walk nor run (away from them, we suppose), Ching Shi was in control of a fleet of over 400 heavy sailing junks and an army of over 40,000 pirates (both men and women). Note that these are low-end estimates – other sources give numbers two or even four times higher.
But Ching Shih was not just a pirate with a fleet. She was the Queen the South China Sea, she was in control – collecting taxes from cities and villages that supported her and plundering those that didn’t.
More than that, she was a Queen who knew that women had it rough and did something about it. She’s rightly famous for her code of laws, which protected captive women (well, yeah, pirates kidnapped people) better than most ‘civilized’ empires managed at the time. Any pirate raping a woman was beheaded. Pretty sharp. And pirates cheating on their ‘brides’? Also beheaded. Ouch.
It wasn’t all progressive – consensual sex on the ship got both parties killed. The man beheaded with an ax, the woman weighed down with cannonballs and thrown overboard.
But still, the death penalty for rape. In 1807. Among pirates. Yeah, Ching Shih’s Red Flag Fleet was something else.
For the next three years Ching Shih was essentially unbeatable, defeating Qing, Portuguese and British East India Company fleets sent to bring her down. Attack after attack against her failed until eventually the Qing government changed tack. In 1810 they opened talks and offered her and her pirates a universal amnesty in exchange for peace.
She drove a good bargain and in the end fewer than 400 of her pirates were punished, and only 126 were executed (different times). The rest, including Ching Shih, kept all their fabulous booty and were offered military jobs.
Ching Shih herself retired with her loot to open a gambling house with her Number Two, Chang Pao Tsai. To make the story saucier, Chang Pao Tsai (literally ‘Chang Pao the Kid’) had been her ex-husband’s second-in-command and adopted son, before Ching I had captured her. Let’s say there was some realpolitik in her second marriage.
In any case, she retired wealthy and safe from a super-successful career of piracy (we admit, not a totally perfect role model) at the age of 35. She lived a full and colourful retirement as the owner of a casino, eventually dying a contented 69-year-old grandmother in 1844.
Sometimes, the gambler beats the house. And sometimes the gambler is a girl with the guts and talent we simply have to cheer for. Shi Xianggu shows how the odds can be beaten. And beaten hard.
April Magazine presents a series that highlights the badass Asian women of history. If you have a heroine in mind, tell us in the comments.