This is the story of a brave Chinese woman who became one of the greatest pirates of all times.
Throughout history, we’ve read tales about the most fearsome pirates and treasure hunters that sailed the seven seas in search for gold and hidden treasures. Even though most stories we hear were of men, there were also brave women who didn't shy away from ruling over the oceans. As a matter of fact, there was one particular woman that not only sailed alongside infamous scoundrels, but actually seized power, controlling over 80 thousand outlaws. This is the brief but amazing story of Ching Shih, a Chinese prostitute who defied vicious cutthroats and became the greatest pirate of her era.
Born in 1775 under the name Shi Xianggu, Shih grew up in Guangdong (Canton), a province located in the southeastern region of China. There is little information about her childhood, since her notoriety came later on in life. While growing up, life was tough and she had to make a living any way possible. This is why, at some point in her life, she worked as a prostitute on a floating brothel. It was until 1801, during an encounter with the pirate and commander of the Red Flag Fleet, Zheng Yi, that Shih’s life would change forever: they fell in love.
Yi shortly proposed to Shih, although rumor has it that their story wasn’t as romantic. Some say Yi ordered a raid on the brothel where Shih worked at and captured her; others believe Yi simply asked Shih to marry him. Little did he know, he wasn't just getting married, he was securing his greatest ally and partner.
Shih was very wise and she married Yi on one condition: she would share his power equally and would be given the opportunity to help her husband secure more wealth for them both. Shih Xianggu came to be known as Cheng I Sao, or "Wife of Cheng,” and for the following six years, the happy couple teamed up and created a lucrative piracy business along the coast of the South China Sea. Unfortunately, in 1807, Yi passed away, and Cheng promptly took over the reins. Her name was then changed to Ching Shih (“Cheng’s widow”).
Her first act as leader was to make her husband's second-in-command, Chang Pao, official captain of the fleet, which amounted between 50,000 to 70, 000 pirates. While Chang Pao fought in the front, Shih focused her attention and energy on the business and military strategies. As she acquired more power she gathered more outlaws under her banner, the Red Flag Fleet. She singlehandedly became responsible for nearly all the piracy in the region, and the size of her fleet even exceeded the size of many countries' navies. Her power and influence began to attract the attention of enemies and the crimes committed under her watch garnered the full attention of the law. But even then, she outsmarted them all.
Shih fought the Chinese navy and many Portuguese and British bounty hunters tried to capture her and failed. In 1810, the Chinese government offered her a deal she couldn’t refuse: a universal pirate amnesty in exchange for peace. The pirate queen arranged a killer deal; less than 400 of her men were punished and little more than 120 of them were executed. The remaining pirates were offered military jobs. Shih retired with her loot and with her new husband (her former right hand, Chang Pao) they opened a gambling house. She died peacefully in 1844.
Yes, there may have been murder and mayhem, but what Shih accomplished was admirable considering the time she lived in. She managed to rule an entire ocean and army when women were forbidden to take power. It may be that in our collective imagination we remember Bluebeard or other flamboyant scoundrels, but it is stories like those of Shih that inspire us, a woman who overcame great challenges and fought for what she truly desired.
Who wouldn't want a bit of her spirit?
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