During China’s Qing Dynasty, a fearsome pirate roamed the seas, earning the reputation of the most successful pirate in history. It was no ordinary man – in fact, the pirate was a woman named Ching Shih.
Click start to play today’s Spell It, where we learn about the exploits of the ‘iconic’ pirate queen.
At the height of her notoriety, Ching Shih commanded over 1,800 pirate ships and roughly 80,000 pirates. In comparison, English pirate Blackbeard commanded four ships and 300 pirates, within the same century.
Get to know Ching Shih, with details from a November 2021 report from the history news website History Hit:
1. She was born into poverty
Born as Shih Yang in 1775, in the depths of poverty in Guangdong, China, Ching Shih led an extremely difficult life. When she reached puberty, she was forced to work in a floating brothel, also known as a flower boat, to support her family. Quickly becoming famous in the area for her beauty, poise, wit and hospitality, she often attracted the attention of royal courtiers, military commanders and rich merchants.
2. She married a pirate
In 1801, however, notorious pirate command Zheng Yi came across Ching Shih, who was then 26 years old, in Guangdong. He became enraptured by her beauty and how she wielded power over her wealthier clients by trading secrets. Different reports state that Ching Shih was either abducted by Zheng Yi’s men, or willingly accepted his marriage proposal. However, one thing was clear: she stated she would marry him only on the condition that he grant her 50 per cent of his earnings and partial control of his pirate fleet. Zheng Yi agreed, and the couple were married, and went on to have two sons.
3. Reforms in the Red Flag Fleet
Ching Shih went on to fully participate in her husband’s piracy and underworld dealings. But she also implemented strict rules in the Red Flag Fleet. Among them, were instant execution for those who refused to follow orders, execution for rape of female captives, and execution for marital infidelity. Under her watch, female captives were treated more respectfully, and the weak and pregnant were freed as soon as possible. Loyalty and honesty were generously rewarded and the fleet was encouraged to work together.
4. The Red Flag Fleet became the largest pirate fleet ever
With Zheng Yi and Ching Shih working together, the Red Flag Fleet exploded in size and saw immense prosperity. Although the new rules were harsh, they were considered to be fair, and a reward system in place helped boost the pirates’ motivation. Many pirate groups in the region voluntarily joined forced with the Red Flag Fleet, increasing their numbers exponentially. When Zheng Yi married Ching Shih, their numbers were at 200 ships, which then rose to 1,800 ships.
5. She defeated the Qing Dynasty navy
After Zheng Yi’s death in 1807, Ching Shih installed her adopted son as the leader of the fleet and commanded the fleet with him. The Red Flag Fleet frequently plundered British and French coloniser ships. When the Qing Dynasty had had enough of them, and sent Mandarin navy vessels to confront them in the South China Sea, they were decimated within a matter of hours. Ching Shih boldly invited the Mandarin crew to join the Red Flag Fleet if they wanted to avoid punishment and managed to grow the size of her fleet even further. As a result, the Qing Dynasty lost a huge portion of its navy.
Eventually, the emperor of China, embarrassed by his loss, attempted peace by offering amnesty to all pirates of the Red Flag Fleet. At the same time, the fleet came under attack from the Portuguese navy, which was well prepared, having been defeated twice before, with a huge supply of weapons and ships. It was the end of the Red Flag Fleet. Ching Shih retired in 1810, by accepting amnesty. Most of her pirate crew were able to secure jobs within the military and Chinese government, and her adopted son later became the captain of the Qing Dynasty’s Guangdong navy.