Ching Shih, from prostitute to pirate queen

Ching Shih or Cheng I Sao or Zheng Yi Sao was the most well-known and influent female pirate. She was commanding the Red Flag Fleet during the beginning of the 19h century which was constituted of more than 1800 ships and approximatively 60 000 pirates (male and female).

Important dates

  • 1785: birth of Shil Xiang Gu in Guangdong province, China
  • 1801: she marries Zheng Yi and become a pirate lord
  • 1807: death of Zheng Yi
  • 1844: death of Ching Shih

Thanks to her leadership Chinese piracy was invincible and could resist any attack from national and international naval force.

Shih was born in 1785 in the Guangdong province as Shil Xiang Gu and was a prostitute for most of her childhood and adulthood in Canton. In 1801 her life took a turn when she married Zheng Yi, a young Chinese pirate heir coming from a long lineage of famous and fortunate pirates. He is actually the one who created the Red Flag Fleet alliance not a long time before marrying her. Ching then managed to take a position of power not to long after his death in 1807 and then the control over the entire alliance helped by their adopted son and second in command Chang Pao. From Macao to Canton, Ching Shih manage to raid and plunder every village with her fleet. She had control over every aspect of the business and was feared by her entire crew as she was known to be ruthless and violent to her victims but also to her crew. So much that she took the decision even when the most influential commanders were against her. She was strict and had rules concerning hostages. Her crew member wasn’t allowed to kill women. If they were considered “ugly” they were released unarmed and her crew members could keep and marry the others. Furthermore, she condemned unfaithfulness and rape for which they would be executed. After years and years of confrontation against her and her fleet, the Chinese government which was supported by international help like England and Portugal trying to go through her defencee finally decided to institute an amnesty allowing any pirate to become a normal citizen. She even successfully negotiates hers, a majority of her crew members’ freedom and manage to keep all her wealth. Until her death in 1844, at 69-years-old Shih manage her own gambling house. She had a huge influence on piracy, modern culture and you probably already knew her as Mistress Ching in the very popular movie “Pirates of the Caribbean”. She appeared in many books and movie and is still known as the most powerful and influential women in piracy.