Ching Shih. History of the world’s most feared pirate (who was a woman)

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ching shih (1)
Ching Shih

Every world has its own rules, and the world of navigation is no exception. It is therefore normal that the best stories arise among those men who have been able to capitalize on these rules and, by staying within them, give their best.


The sensational story of the pirate Ching Shih

The exceptional stories, on the other hand, the ones we tell with incredulous amazement, are the ones that overturn these rules-this is the case with Ching Shih.

In such a world as seafaring, that of late 18th-century China, a woman overturned every convention, redeeming herself from her initial condition of departure (she was, as we shall see, a prostitute) and actually coming to be the most feared pirate in history, at the head of the most impressive fleet the buccaneering world has ever seen.


Ching Shih. From diamonds nothing is born

Ching Shih was born in 1775 in Guangdong Province, and the earliest information about her is about her work as a prostitute in the port city of Guangzhou. Ironic to see how this incredible woman’s story starts under the most desperate conditions, a story of social redemption that is hard to believe. The sea (and fortune), however, did not wait long, and Ching was captured by Cheng (or Zheng) Yi, a pirate in charge of six fleets of pirate ships, who had become so enamored of the woman that he accepted the crazy proposal Ching dared to make to him.

The woman had been captured and taken to the ship along with other prostitutes from the floating brothel on which she worked, as was the custom at that time; in that part of the Pacific, in fact, it seems that people did not share the superstition that women brought bad luck aboard ships; rather, it was customary to bring their families with them (even before they became one in this case). The pirate Cheng Yi captivated by Ching Shih’s beauty proposed himself in marriage: a less cunning or daring person would have seen this constraint as yet another misfortune in his life.

But people who make history are not known for submitting to the whims of chance, but for bending them and riding on opportunities. The story goes that Ching responded thus, “I will marry you on one simple condition: that you share all your spoils with me and put me in charge of one of your fleets.” Hence began this incredible woman’s resounding rise to power. Cheng commanded the Red Flag Fleet, which from that day on had two commanders, husband and wife.


The rise to power of Ching Shih

It did not take for Ching and Cheng to become the most feared pirates in the South China Sea, and one of the most successful criminal couples ever, to put Bonnie and Clyde to shame: they began by raiding coastal villages and became the terror of all fishermen. When, in response to these events and on the advice of the government, villages were set on fire and fishermen moved inland, the fleet targeted ships plying their stretch of sea.

After seven years Cheng died. During this time their fleet had grown from about two hundred vessels to more than one thousand four hundred pirate ships, which suddenly, in 1807, all passed into the hands of Ching Shih, making it rightfully part of maritime history. Unthinkable that the woman’s presence was just a fluke in the skyrocketing success of this massive pirate fleet.


Bread and roses

Paraphrasing Machiavelli, those who become commanders only by luck, with great difficulty manage to retain power thereafter.

That Chingh’s was not just luck can be seen from the sequel. In a decidedly shrewd move, Ching realized that she could not maintain power on her own without problems, and if she had gotten where she wanted to be through a union in marriage, another union would keep her in the command post on the quarterdeck.

Ching Shih
Ching Shih (right) in combat

Without hesitation, Ching took Chang Pao, adopted son of the late Cheng, as her husband. This formal solution put everyone in agreement, both Ching’s men and those of the late commander, who saw the godson as the only worthy successor. In this way Ching circumvented the “limitations” inherent in her being a woman in charge of the most monstrous fleet ever seen. At its peak, the fleet numbered 60,000 men and grew to 2,000 ships.

A Chinese junker from the early 1800s
A Chinese junker from the early 1800s

Ching was an example to women (of the time): she imposed very strict discipline within her fleet and very strict rules for all men who violated the rules she set. Tax on war booty, death to deserters, ban on straying ashore, but above all he “protected” women captured by his fleet: rape was condemned with death, infidelity to wives-often victims of war raids but to be treated with full honors-was always punished with death.

No one in his right mind could have let the raids continue unpunished: over the next two years the Chinese Emperor Jiaquing employed all his forces to annihilate Ching Shih and the Red Flag Fleet. First alone, then exhausted by constant defeats, he asked England and Portugal for help: the only result he achieved was to make Ching the woman pirate who throughout history stood up to well three empires with her fleet of loyal men. The only remaining solution was to offer amnesty to the pirate woman in exchange for her retirement from the business.


Honor among thieves

Every story must come to a conclusion, but fortunately for us, Ching made even the last days of his pirate activity memorable.

After at first refusing the offer, the woman looked at her own situation: she was in charge of the most impressive fleet ever, but even she knew that it could not last forever; moreover, over the years and battles the fleet was beginning to diminish, to undergo secessions. So he devised one last blow to inflict on the Chinese Empire.

If it is true that a commander must go down with her ship, and if she herself punished those who deserted with death, how could she retreat, leaving her men at the mercy of the emperor?

So, very simply as he had begun, he went to the central government with a proposal on his plate, as bold as the first one he made to Cheng years earlier. She asked that the pardon be not only for her but for all the men in her fleet.

The government, cornered, was forced to agree. And so he ended his existence, richly, peacefully, where he had begun, city lawlessness: he opened a pleasure house, ran a gambling house and traded (illegally) in salt.

Peter Fish

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