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Ching Shih: A Woman Who Rose From Comfort Woman to Pirate in the 19th Century

An Air Warrior and devotee of Lord Krishna has published over 120 short stories and 15 books on fiction and 4 on military history.



Pirates and their flag with its distinctive skull are famous. Most people like me have a fascination with pirates. One loves to read about them and their exploits on the high seas. Make no mistake, though one has a romantic image of them, yet in reality, they are very deadly persons. Pirates have not gone away and even now in the 21st century, we have pirates moving in the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the coast close to Somalia. Despite all this, people all over the world love tales of pirates. Robert Louis Stevenson immortalized the pirates in his book ‘Kidnapped’.

Women pirates are not heard off. Yes, there are many tales of pirates and their exploits not forgetting the woman they have loved. Daphne Du Maurier wrote a lovely love story of a pirate and noble lady in her book 'Frenchman's Creek'. There is a lovely creation of a pirate in Sergeanne Golon's Angelique series.

Out of all this medley of male pirates, the name of one woman stands out. She was Chinese and lived during the 18th and 19th centuries. Her name was Ching Shih and she lived from 1775 to 1844. It is rumored she started her carrier as a comfort woman and then became a pirate before she retired and lived a contented life running a bar cun comfort house in Canton when she passed away.


The pirate queen

Ching Shih was not born a pirate, but to a relatively poor household in Canton in 1775. Not much is known of her early life. Historians are aware that she entered a brothel and started work at a very young age. In those days Canton had a string of floating brothels and Ching Shih started work in one of them. Her sketches of that period are available and one can see that Ching Shih was a very slim and beautiful girl. Canton was a port that was touched by the Portuguese, French, and British, and their sailors were regaled by Chinese girls. Ching was one such girl but she was calculating woman.

Around 1800 a pirate named Zhang Yi fell in love with her. After spending a night with Ching, Zang was enamored with her. He followed up with a raid in 1802 and abducted Ching Shih. Ching Shih was 26 years old at that time. She really had no choice and decided to make the best of what had happened. She accepted Zhang Yi as a lover but drove a hard bargain with him. She negotiated a 50 percent share in the profits and command of one of his fleets. Shih also gave up her work as a prostitute. Her life now took an entirely different course.

Zhang Yi was a formidable pirate and he commanded a vast pirate fleet. His fleet known as the Red Flag scoured the China Sea, pillaging, burning, and robbing ships. At its peak, the Red Flag fleet consisted of over 150 ships. Zhang died in 1807. It is not clear how he died, but as per popular perception, he was killed in a typhoon in the China Sea.

Ching Shih took the death of Zhang in her stride and decided to don the mantle of a pirate. She took command of the pirate fleet after negotiating a deal with Chang Pao, the chief Lieutenant of Zhang. He agreed to work under her as her Chief Executive Seaman. Sex had a hand in this deal as Ching Shih and Chang Pao became lovers. They probably had a son.

Ching Shih now sailed the China Sea and for three years she was empress of the high seas. Her fleet expanded as also her activities. At its peak, the Red Flag Fleet had over two hundred small boats with twenty guns each and hundreds of smaller craft. She also employed over 17,000 men, making it one of the largest navies in the China Sea.

Ching Shih was also a strict disciplinarian and anybody committing a crime like a violation of a woman was castrated. During this period the Chinese government sent a fleet to annihilate her but was defeated. The Portuguese and British were on her side and gave her a long rope. The central government after the defeat of the Chinese fleet decided that the menace of piracy must be finished. They offered an amnesty to any pirate who would surrender and an honorable life thereafter.

Ching probably realized that she could not carry on like this forever and the offer for amnesty from the Imperial government in 1810 was readily accepted by her. She was allowed to keep her loot and riches.

Ching Shih made good use of her amnesty and opened a bar cum comfort house at Canton. She lived her last years till her death in 1844 in relative comfort with respect. One of her sons survived her. Ching Shih was a rare breed; She was a woman pirate who made a success of piracy as a profession and retired to lead a respectable life.

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A thrilling life

Ching Shih lived a thrilling life. Her Red flag fleet attacked the merchant ships and looted them. She was at the helm of affairs for five years till 1810. She made good use of her amnesty and opened a bar cum brothel at Canton. After all, this was the only profession she knew and was conversant with.

Not much is known of her husband who also probably gave up piracy and joined her. She lived her last years till her death in 1844 in relative comfort with respect. One of her sons survived her. Ching Shih was a rare breed; her life and piracy have to be seen in light of the scenario in the 19th century. The South China Sea was a lawless area and China was weak. Shih exploited the situation and secured a good deal. Just for her tenaciousness, she could be an example for the woman of the 21st century.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 11, 2020:

Thank you Mike, for commenting.

Readmikenow on August 11, 2020:

Another excellent article! Enjoyed reading it.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 10, 2020:

Heidi, thank you for sparing time and commenting

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 10, 2020:

Flourish, Your comment is welcome

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 10, 2020:

Absolutely fascinating! I never heard of heard prior to today but what a gutsy broad. I like her for making the best out of a hopeless situation. Superb!

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on August 10, 2020:

I had heard about her on some history documentary. Fascinating. For the period, she was an anomaly. With that kind of drive, and maybe with a more supportive upbringing, think of what she could have become if she was living today. Thanks for sharing this interesting bit of history!

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