The Terror of South China

Hello and thanks for joining me for another Women in History Crush Wednesday! Our WCW for this week is legendary pirate Ching Shih.


Ching Shih, also known as Zhéng Yi Sao, Zhéng Shí, and Shil Xiang Gu, was born in the Guangzhou providence of China in 1775. Very little is known about her childhood, but by the time she was in her early childhood, Shih was working as a prostitute in a floating brothel. In 1801, Shih married a small but successful pirate, Zhéng Yi. There’s controversy about whether Zhéng Yi had his men abduct Shih or if he went himself to her after meeting once, but before Shih agreed to marry him she made a deal; Shih would marry Yi only if she got an equal share of the plunder of and power over his Red Flag Fleet. Following their marriage, Shih co-commanded the fleet’s sailors, but focused most on building alliances with other pirates. Within six years, Shih tripled the size of fleet and spread a reputation of the Red Flag Fleet as being unstoppable and aggressive. In 1807, Shih lost her husband to storms at sea. Shih didn’t want to lose her position in the fleet, so soon married Yi’s first mate, Chang Pao, to ensure her hold as commander.

With Pao now upholding the fleet’s reputation, Shih took over the business and military side of administration. Shih again tripled the size of the fleet, and, now with over 18,000 ships, split into the Black, White, Blue, Yellow, and Green fleets flying under the Red Flag banner. Shih assigned each group of ships its own mission – some pillaged coastal cities and forced them to pay tribute, others ran a kind of toll system for passage through the South China Sea, and a few even helped run a spy network within the Qing dynasty.

Shih’s method of managing a crew of over 80,000 sailors was brutal. Before I go into some of the details, I suggest that anyone not okay with reading about gruesome punishment please skip the rest of this paragraph. She came up with her own code of behavior that covered the delegation of plunder, treatment of female captives, and “protection” of tribute-paying cities and towns, and if any rules were broken or she thought they were being broken, the offender would be beheaded and thrown into the sea. Opposing pirates, if they didn’t not form an alliance with her fleet, would be nailed to the deck and flogged. Deserters would get their ears cut off before also being nailed to the deck and flogged.


Her domination of the South China Sea and alleged interference with the government lead to issues with the Chinese navy. The Chinese had to enlist the help of both the British and Portuguese navies after a few months, as Shih’s fleets won battle after battle. After two more years of battles, during which the navies kept losing and Shih’s fleets only grew stronger with conscriptions of defeated sailors, the Chinese government offered Shih amnesty if she would call off the fighting and retire. Displeased with the offer, Shih went directly to the governor general of Guangzhou and renegotiated. Shih demanded full amnesty, allowance to keep her loot, and legal protection as a member of the aristocracy for herself and amnesty and the loot ownership for all her sailors. The Chinese government conceded on everything for all but three hundred of Shih’s men, who were punished or executed for other crimes. So, in 1810, Shih retired from her life at sea and returned to Guangzhou, where she opened and operated a gambling house until her death in 1839. At some point, she had a son and later grandchildren, but there is little recorded about her retired life.

While I don’t aspire to become a ruthlessly powerful pirate, I think there’s something unconventionally inspiring about Shih’s career. She used her wit and business skills to build up and command a fleet of ships voluminous and powerful enough to rival three major navies, all within the span of nine years. She accomplished more in an nine-year career than most pirates were able to do over a lifetime, and then to top it all off, she retired as a wealthy aristocrat with government protections.

To learn more about Ching Shih’s fast and furious life, check out these Today I Found Out, Ancient Origins, and Atlas Obscura pages. Yo ho ho, and all that stuff.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Women in History Crush Wednesdays.

Be heard!


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