Ching Shih, the Cantonese Sex Worker Who Became China's Most Feared Pirate

In the early 1800s, Ching Shih was the mastermind behind a floating criminal empire made up of more than 40,000 ships.

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Oct 8 2018, 3:40pm

Via Wikimedia Commons. 

The following is an excerpt from the new book, History Vs Women: The Defiant Lives That They Don't Want You to Know, by Anita Sarkeesian and Ebony Adams.

When most people think of pirates, they imagine hulking, fearsome men with names like Blackbeard or Long John Silver. Although the vast majority of pirates throughout history have been male, one of the most famous and feared pirates who ever lived was Ching Shih, a young Cantonese woman who became the ruler of one of the largest pirate fleets in history and the mastermind behind a floating criminal empire so powerful that even the Chinese military couldn’t stop it.

We don’t know much about her early life, except that at one point she worked at a brothel in Canton. In 1801, Ching Shih married a pirate commander named Ching Yih and soon ruled by his side as he expanded his empire, unifying countless small scattered crews of pirates into an organized and increasingly powerful coalition. When her husband died suddenly in 1807, Ching Shih knew exactly what to do: She stepped in to claim the leadership for herself—taking control of somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 pirates.

Their acceptance of a woman as their commander remains a remarkable testament to both her political skill and the respect she must have earned from the crew. She soon appointed her adopted son, Chang Pao, as the commander of her most powerful fleet and eventually married him. It was a little creepy, but the two became a formidable team whose raids were feared throughout the South China Sea.

We don’t know exactly what Ching looked like, although some historians have assumed she caught the eye of her pirate husband through good looks rather than her considerable intelligence. While there are flamboyant but dubious accounts invented by Western writers of a gorgeous “goddess” wielding swords and wearing glittering battle gear covered in golden dragons, more reliable texts describe Ching Shih as “a good military strategist,” a “strict disciplinarian,” and “an excellent businesswoman.” This much was true.

Illustration by T.S. Abe. Courtesy Feiwel and Friends.

Although she rejected many traditional ideas about what women could and couldn’t do, other rules were extremely important—namely those enforced on her ships. With the help of a code of conduct drawn up by Chang Pao, she established clear rules for the behavior, finances, and power structure of the fleet, as well as the draconian punishments that awaited anyone who dared to disobey or cheat her. Her rule was unquestionably harsh, not only for the victims of her raids, but for anyone in her fleet who dared to step out of line.

Among the rules that Ching Shih imposed was that all plunder had to be registered, with 80 percent of the loot paid into a general fund. Somewhat ironically, stealing from the fund was one of the worst crimes a pirate could commit, and the punishment was death. As one observer noted, Ching Shih’s strict and often lethal reaction to misbehavior kept the crew very honest, and the pirates under her command “took great care to behave themselves well.”

Through careful and ruthless management, Ching Shih made the bloody and chaotic work of piracy into a highly organized business, and business was good, making her a very wealthy woman.

And of course, like so many male leaders, conquerors, and generals throughout history, her prosperity and success came at the cost of innocent lives. Her remarkable story is a reminder that regardless of the limitations placed on them, women can be anything that men can be: brilliant and brutal, courageous and cruel, powerful and dreadful.

The Chinese government devoted considerable effort to crushing the pirates, but thanks in large part to Ching Shih’s strategic skill, her fleets became so powerful that the government eventually stopped trying to destroy them and started negotiating with them instead.

Ching Shih knew that piracy was not a career built for longevity, especially when the most common retirement plan was death. So, in 1810 she stepped off a boat and, surrounded by the wives and children of her pirates, walked completely unarmed to the office of the local governor-general to discuss amnesty.

With a fearsome floating army at her back, Ching Shih negotiated a very good deal: Not only were she and any other pirates who surrendered completely pardoned by the government for their many, many crimes, but they kept all their ill-gotten plunder and even received jobs from the government if they wanted. Her husband gained a position in the military as a lieutenant, where he commanded a private fleet—made up of former pirates, of course.

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Thanks to her exceptional cunning and bravery, Ching Shih ended her life of piracy not as a criminal behind bars or the casualty of a raid gone wrong, but rather by gathering her riches and retiring in comfort as a law-abiding citizen. Well, mostly law-abiding. She spent her later years running a gambling establishment back in Canton, where she reportedly led a “peaceful life,” or at least as peaceful as she could manage while presiding over a notorious gambling den.

When she finally died in 1844 at 69 years old, she had transformed herself from a relatively powerless young woman into the most powerful female pirate in history, plus something almost as rare: a pirate who died from old age.

"History Vs Women" is by Anita Sarkeesian and Ebony Adams, with illustrations by T. S. Abe, Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan Children's Publishing Group 2018.