For those who don’t know me, I am Cyhrus, aka. Super Cyguy (you can find my blog here at Super Cyguy’s WordPress. In that blog I mostly talk about Comics, with the odd foray into gaming. But I can now proudly say I am part of a new venture with my good friends from Reaper Legion, I am working on a once-monthly history blog. These topics will range from famous battles, historical countries and empires, periods of history, historical figures, and other topics. As such, let’s get started.
Today, we are going to talk about pirates. Specifically a single pirate. One who gets very little acknowledgement despite being possibly the most succesfull pirate ever. And her (yes, a her, Pirates didn’t discriminate as much as most of society did) legacy is barely touched on, especially in western media (which focuses almost exclusively on the Caribbean). Her name is Shi Xiang Gu, also known as Ching Shih.
Early Life of Shi Xiang Gu
There isn’t a whole lot known about her early life. The only things known for sure is that she was born into the Shi clan of the danjia (boat-dwelling people) people in Guangdong (modern day Canton). Her birth name was Shi Xiang Gu, and she actively worked as a prostitute, and she was born in 1775. In 1801 she met Zheng Yi of the Zheng clan of danjia (the Zheng clan being a rather prominent clan of Pirates, and Zheng Yi being rather notorious himself at the time), where he was struck with her beauty and he took her as his wife. And that is where we pick up into her married years.
Expansion of her Influence, the rise of Zheng Yi Sao
One of Shi’s conditions on marrying Zheng Yi was that she was an equal participant (thus making her a co-leader) in his ventures. The fleet they commanded was known as the Red Flag Fleet. During their marriage, Shi became known as Zheng Yi Sao (roughly translates to “Wife of Older Brother Zheng Yi). The two of them went to Annam (Modern day Vietnam) to fight in the Tay Son Rebellion. Upon returning to China, Zheng Yi and Zheng Yi Sao started a partnership with pirate Wu Shi’er, which expanded both their power spheres rapidly. This partnership eventually lead to what was known as the “Cantonese Pirate Coalition”, and an expansion of the Zheng couple’s armada from about 200 ships to around 600 ships. During their marriage, they also adopted a boy who was around 15 at the time, named Zhang Bao (this plays an important part soon). In 1807, Zheng Yi died, and Shi became known as Ching Shih (her most famous moniker).
(One of the few historically accurate pictures of the Ching Shih)
Ching Shih, Pirate Lord
After the death of her husband, Zheng Yi Sao became known as Ching Shih, and manouvered herself into becoming the leader of the Red Flag Fleet (the largest fleet within the Cantonese Pirate Coalition, and also the one her and her now deceased husband ran together). She did this via political maneuvering with Zheng Yi’s most influential family members (who would have had some claim to leadership), and by marrying the second in command of her and Zheng’s fleet (her adopted son, Zhang Bao). She gained the trust of several of the major captains, and proved herself indispensable to others who may not have willingly followed her otherwise. All the work she did paid off, as she was now what would be known as a Pirate Lord (or Pirate Queen), and single-handedly led roughly 50.000-80,000 men (numbers are in dispute, 50,000 being the lowest and 80,000 being the highest, but it is generally acknowledged to be above 70,000). Under her command, the Cantonese Pirate Coalition reached as many as 1200 ships (which would be roughly 420,000 men) in 5 different fleets (Red, her personal fleet being the largest, as well as Black, Green, Blue, and Yellow, all named after the colour of the flag each fleet used as identifiers). Her biggest threat to power at this point was not the Chinese government, the Vietnamese government, the Korean government, or even the British and Portuguese governments. It was in-fighting. When you have 1 person in charge of 400,000 people, and several fleets of 50,000+ people, it’s hard to stop corruption and power-grabbing. And she would know, because it was politicking that allowed her to take power.
Legacy and Retirement
Part of Ching Shih’s leadership involved creating a form of government for the fleets, including taxes and laws that protected themselves from each other. One thing they did incredibly well was plunder distribution. Whichever ship captured the plunder presented it to the fleet (remember, the Cantonese Pirate Coalition had 5 major fleets). Once it was inspected and registered, the capturing ship received 20% of the plunder to divide up between the crew, while the other 80% went into the collective public fund (that was used to help pay for repairs and and wages for unprofitable ships). She also put forth a series of rules on the capture and treatment of female prisoners. The ugly ones were let free unharmed (yes, that was one of her rules). If one of the pirates wanted to take an attractive woman as a wife, he was allowed, under the conditions that she consented, and that he took care of her and remained faithful. Rape and Adultery were punishable by death on the first offense. If a pirate had consensual sex with a captive but did not have permission to marry, he would be beheaded, and she would have cannonballs strapped to her feet and thrown overboard. Deserters were hunted down while they had their ears chopped off. People who resisted her would often be punished by having their feet nailed to the deck of a ship and then given a beating. She also took control of a large amount of coastal villages. A few of her rules were as follows: Anyone disobeying a direct order of hers, or issuing orders that didn’t come from her, was penalized with beheading. No one was to steal from the public fund, or from any of the villages that supplied the Cantonese Pirate Coalition. In 1810, all pirates in the Cantonese Pirate Coalition were offered amnesty by the Chinese government. Ching Shih and the Red Flag Fleet accepted the offer (the Black Flag Fleet accepted previously, severely weakening Ching Shih’s forces, and part of the reason she accepted the amnesty). Her adopted stepson/husband Zhang Bao took up a military position for the government, while Ching Shih opened a gambling house (they had successfully managed to negotiate keeping their wealth, and even a portion of their fleet as “trade ships”). When the First Opium War started between China and Britain, Ching Shih signed up to help China in their defence. She ultimately died in 1844 at the age of 69.
Influence in Modern Culture
Jorge Luis Borges semi-fictional story “The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate” was loosely based around the life of Ching Shih. This book was translated into a movie in 2003 by Argentine writer Ermanno Olmi.
In 2006, there was an Original English Novel manga, Afterlife, had a depiction of Ching Shih as a guardian of humanity.
Author L.A. Meyer has a book series called Bloody Jack in which the book “The Wake of Lorelei Lee” had Ching Shih appear and gave character Jacky a tattoo that bestowed her Ching Shih’s protection.
In 2007, Pirates of the Caribbean included Ching Shih in the third movie (At Worlds End) as one of the nine pirate lords. In here she was known as Mistress Ching.
She has also been portrayed in several television dramas throughout Asia, including Hong Kong’s “Captain of Destiny” in 2015, and Malaysia’s “Red Flag” in 2014.
(Ching Shih, depicted as Mistress Ching, in Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End)