Ching Shih Reigns as Pretty Princess or Terror of the South China Sea

Locked in a vicious sword fight, Ching Shih (right) battles alongside her men. After a grueling match, she returns to her ship and her crew victorious.

Anonymous Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Locked in a vicious sword fight, Ching Shih (right) battles alongside her men. After a grueling match, she returns to her ship and her crew victorious.

Emma Thurgood, Reporter

When someone mentions a pirate, it’s usually Captain Hook, Captain Jack Sparrow, or maybe Blackbeard. But, to this day, one of the most successful pirates throughout all of history is a Chinese woman who was born to nothing and rose to take everything named Ching Shih.

Her name might not sound familiar, but if someone has seen the “Pirates of the Caribbean” saga, they might remember a scene in the installment “At World’s End” where Elizabeth Swann becomes Pirate King in front of the table of nine Pirate Lords. If they do, then they would’ve seen Ching Shih amongst them.

According to the History of Yesterday’s website, she was born Shih Yang in the Guangdong province of China in 1775. Because she was born beautiful in poverty, she was forced to work as a prostitute to support her family at the age of 13. This is where she met Zheng Yi in 1801 who was quickly enamored by Shih. The next part of her life is largely debated on what actually happened: Some people say that Yi asked her to marry him, and she agreed only after he promised her 50% of all monetary gains as well as partial control over his fleet. Others claim that Yi just kidnapped her.

(Fun Fact: Rejected Princesses’s website states that Zheng Yi was granted the title of ‘Golden Dragon of the Imperial Staff’ which promotes him to status of Prince, so one could make the argument that Shih Yang is a Princess.)

Despite how Shih became his wife, one thing that can be known for sure is that this was a turning point in her life and it would lead her to great things. With Shih’s support, Yi’s fleet, called the Red Flag Fleet, would grow from 200 to 1800 ships in just a matter of months. The Red Flag Fleet would become one of the largest pirate fleets in history, as the History of Yesterday website states.

And then Yi died. In accordance with both the Rejected Princess’s website and History of Yesterday’s website, when Yi died, many people tried to take control of the fleet. Shih (now Ching Shih, which translates to widow of Ching) gathered up all of the traitors and had them publicly executed. Rejected Princesses claims that she said, “Under the leadership of a man you have all chosen to flee. We shall see how you prove yourselves under the hand of a woman.”

Now this next part is very odd; Yi and Shih had adopted a son named Cheung Pao Tsai (different sources give different iterations of his name, but the Google official name for him is Cheung Pao Tsai), and Yi and Shih made Tsai their heir. However, many crew members found this strange because when they adopted him, he was an adult man. Stranger still is that when Yi died, Shih married Tsai. Now, no one can provide concrete evidence as to why they adopted him, or why Shih married him, though many rumors have been circulated, according to the History of Yesterday website.

The Rejected Princesses website says that when Shih took over the fleet full time, she implemented a very strict code of conduct amongst the fleet. Some of her rules included that if a pirate decided to take a female prisoner as a wife, then he had to be faithful and treat her well with death as the punishment for not doing so. Another rule was that disobedience resulted in a body part being cut off (which body part got cut off was dependent on the severity of the crime).

The Qing dynasty called her the Terror of the South China Sea. And with her near-total control over the fleet, she flaunted her control over the entire South China Sea. Which also made them a problem for British and French colonizers, who were plundered regularly. Additionally, according to the History of Yesterday website, not a single ship went in or out of the South China Sea that Shih didn’t know about, and if a ship wanted to cross the South China Sea, they had to pay a tax to Shih’s Red Flag Fleet. The fleet had entire coastal towns working for them, supplying food and provisions. And it gets better! The Emperor of China was enraged that so much of the sea, land, and people that he thought belonged to him, were being controlled by a woman, a pirate woman nonetheless. The Qing Dynasty wanted to get rid of the fleet so they sent the Mandarin Navy Vessels. But the vessels lost humiliatingly, and when presented with an opportunity to join Shih (or die), they joined, and the Qing Dynasty lost a huge piece of their navy.

The History of Yesterday website states that it was at this point that the Qing Dynasty realized that there was no way they could force the pirates out; it wasn’t going to happen. They offered amnesty to all members of the Red Flag Fleet. At the same time, the Portuguese military, who had been defeated twice before, attacked the fleet with superior weapons and ships. Shih had no choice – she had to agree to the Qing Dynasty’s deal, but not without stipulations of her own. They surrendered with all members of the fleet gaining amnesty as well as keeping their money. Cheung Pao Tsai became a captain in the Qing Military.

As the History of Yesterday website would go on to say that after Shih “retired ” undefeated in battle (she technically never lost to the Portuguese), she had a son and a daughter. When her husband was lost at sea, she moved to Macau, opened a gambling house, started trading salts, and opened a brothel. It seems oddly ironic and fitting that she lived her life and made a full circle back to where she started, before she died at the age of 69.

Pretty Princess or Terror of the South China Sea? Maybe it is possible to be both and still be one of the most powerful pirates in all of history.