Ching Shih: From Prostitute to The Greatest Pirate Leader

For Chinosity's Women's Month Profile Series, we introduce you to Ching Shih. She was a pirate who thrived in a patriarchal society.


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As Women’s Month is upon us, Chinosity brings attention to powerful women in Chinese history.

We commonly focus on empresses, scholars and artists. But what about a pirate?

Ching Shih (aka Zheng Shi) was a Chinese pirate during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912 CE). She commanded over 60,000 pirates.

Ching Shih was by no means a gentle woman. She grew up in harsh conditions. She learned to survive and thrive in a patriarchal society.

Portrait of Ching Shih

How Ching Shih Got Her Start

Scholars debate where she was born. But we know that in her early life she worked as a prostitute in Canton. 

As one can assume, prostitutes received poor treatment and were of the lowest class. However, she caught the attention of Cheng I (aka Zheng Yi), a well-established pirate. 

There are different stories of how Ching Shih ended up joining Cheng I. 

The first is that Cheng I was infatuated with her. He burned down the brothel she resided in, hence forcing her to join him in piracy. 

The second is that they simply fell in love and she agreed to marry him. 

The third, and the most unlikely, is that he was intrigued by her intelligence. Their partnership was purely business. According to this story, they maintained a 50-50 split of the profits and power.

Old map of the South China Sea, where Ching Shih dominated

Regardless of how their partnership began, Ching Shih joined Cheng I’s life of piracy. Together they formed the Red Flag Fleet, which consisted of 400 ships. 

Ching Shih Takes Control

When Cheng I passed away, Ching Shih was quick to take control. By then she had accumulated over 800 ships and controlled the South China Sea. 

Her crew respected her as she created a strict and effective distribution system for their riches. She created a hegemony over the coastal villages and levied taxes on them. 

Although her rise to power is admirable, she is not a role model by any means. Ching Shih’s fleet pillaged and raided villages. 

They also kidnapped and trafficked women for profit. She had strict rules that said that they would release ugly women unharmed. 

If any of her men raped, they would be beheaded.  If they chose a wife they had to be faithful. But there is no telling the treatment the women faced after they left the supervision of Ching Shih.

How Her Life of Piracy Ended

Ching Shih evaded both the Chinese government and British bounty hunters for years.  However, her piracy ended in 1809 when her fleet was destroyed by the Chinese government. 

Still, she negotiated with Chinese government, In the end she and her husband surrendered their power but kept their fleet.

After her reign of piracy ended, Ching Shih turned to legitimate work. She aided in the Salt Trade and was an advisor for China during the Opium Wars.

Even though Ching Shih’s impacts were morally gray, she was without a doubt a powerful woman. She was able to expand her fleet to threaten one of the most powerful countries in the world. 

She shows how powerful women can be even when starting in an oppressed position. We must imagin how powerful women can be when starting from a position of equality. 


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