Chinese women get a bad rap in the ‘Western stereotypes of Asian people’ department. Possibly conflating Chinese stereotypes with Japanese, many a westerner imagines that Chinese women are subservient, meek little flowers who dote on their menfolk and speak only when spoken to. This is perhaps the most flagrantly inaccurate national stereotype of all time; as long-term residents of China, we’ve witnessed many a guy getting his balls publicly handed to him by his irate girlfriend.
And it certainly isn’t the case in the story of Ching Shih (rendered ‘Zheng Shi’ in modern Chinese Romanisation), hooker turned pirate queen of the South China Sea.
Born circa 1775 in Canton, southern China, Ching Shih started making waves as a prostitute in a floating brothel by 1801. Such was her beauty that she attracted the attention of the South China Sea’s top seadog, a chap by the name of Zheng Yi. Zheng Yi decided he had to have her. Ordinarily, what a pirate lord wants he gets, no questions asked. Ching Shih, however, rapidly attached a few conditions: half of Zheng Yi’s plunder and equal command of his pirate fleet. Presumably awed by the total lack of fucks on display, Zheng Yi immediately agreed.
From hooker to pirate admiral
Ching Shih assumed joint command of the Red Flag Fleet. Under she and Zheng Yi’s leadership, the fleet grew from 200 ships to some 1800 by 1807. Alas, Zheng Yi was killed in a typhoon. Ordinarily, the mantle of pirate lord would have passed to his second-in-command, an intelligent and fearless young man named Chang Pao. Ching Shih wasn’t having any of that; she persuaded Chang Pao that she was better suited to the role, and in 1807 assumed total command of the Red Flag Fleet.
Chang Pao became Head of Looting and Pillaging whilst Ching Shih took side of the ‘business’ side of things. Under her leadership the Fleet flourished and she established a de facto government, complete with its own tax and legal system.
Honour amongst thieves (or get beheaded)
Being a pirate fleet, this was hardly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The punishment for the vast majority of transgressions was simple and brutal: offenders were decapitated and thrown in the sea. Capital crimes included unsanctioned rape, insubordination, theft (in specific instances; they were pirates, after all), sex whilst on duty, and unsanctioned shore leave. Funnily enough desertion, historically a capital crime in a great many nations, was punished by removal of the ears.
Captured women were treated differently according to how aesthetically pleasing they were; ‘ugly’ women were released unconditionally, whilst those deemed more attractive were either awarded to pirates or purchased by them. Ching Shih applied some conditions to this, too: these women were to be treated as wives and their husbands were to be faithful and treat them well. If not, off with their heads and into the sea. Hardly equal rights (these women were basically slaves, remember), but a tad more progressive than your average pirate fleet.
Ching Shih’s method of leadership was so effective that she soon effectively ruled the entire South China Sea, as well as the province of Canton. At her peak she commanded 17,000 pirates directly and a further 60,000 people in various supporting roles (espionage, logistics, affiliated fleets etc.).
How to piss off the Son of Heaven…
The pirate queen soon became a challenge that the Emperor of China could not ignore. He sent an armada to deal with the Red Flag Fleet. Unfortunately for him, Ching Shih was as adept at naval tactics as she was at creating ad hoc pirate kingdoms, and she soundly defeated the Chinese armada. She also captured their best ships and gave captive sailors a choice: join the Red Flag Fleet, or have your feet nailed to the deck and get beaten to death. This was a no-brainer for most members of the captive fleet, and Ching Shih emerged from the Chinese attack stronger for it.
The Emperor was, to put it mildly, upset. He paid massive sums to the end-bosses of 19th-century naval warfare, the British and Portuguese Empires, to take care of the Red Flag Fleet. Ching Shih promptly earnt her piracy platinum trophy by ruining the shit of both nations’ military ships, as well as those of the Dutch.
…and become the most successful pirate of all time
Finally recognising a losing battle, the Emperor offered amnesty to all pirates within Chinese waters. Ching Shih was game, but she wasn’t about to lose her hard-earned booty. Unfortunately, striking a bargain with the Chinese authorities meant kneeling before the governor of Canton, a man named Chang Bai. This was an issue for the pirate queen, who was basically the Mance Rayder of the sea and bent the knee for no man.
A novel compromise was agreed; after striking a deal with Chang Bai, the governor would observe the marriage of Ching Shih and Chang Pao, during which they would kneel. This had nothing to do with paying tribute to Chang Bai, of course, but it was a technicality all felt could be overlooked.
As for Ching Shih’s deal with the Chinese government: for the mere price of throwing 376 of her pirates under the bus (126 of whom were executed), she and her remaining crew got to keep all of their booty and received stipends to transition to life on land. Ching Shih also got awarded the title of “Lady by Imperial Decree”, which basically meant she was made a member of the aristocracy. That’s right; as punishment for a lifetime of wanton pillaging and murder, the Chinese government paid her off and made her a noble. A bit of a step-up from more famous Western counterparts Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach and ‘Calico’ Jack Rackham.
Ching Shih retired to Canton at the ripe old age of 35, opening what was presumably China’s most awesome brothel-cum-gambling-den. She died in 1844 at the age of 69; one of history’s few pirate lords to die of natural causes.
And that, kids, is how you stick it to the man and get him to pay you for the privilege.