Ching Shih known as Cheng I Sao - Cheng's Widow

Ching Shih

Ching Shih (also known as Shi Xianggu, Madame Ching, Zhèng Shì, Jehng Sih, and Cheng I Sao) is without a doubt one of most unique pirate leaders of all time. Born in 1775, she managed to distinguish herself in that fashion not only because she was a female, or that she managed to personally command the force of over 300 pirate ships and 20 thousand pirates or even because she managed to forge alliance with many other pirate leaders who followed her and created a naval force that counted over 1500 naval ships and 180 thousand pirates. In addition to all these incredible feats, the thing that makes her almost unique in entire sea pirate history is the fact that she managed to walk away from piracy unpunished and live her days in peace until she died from old age in 1844.

Not much is known of the early years of Ching Shih except that she was Cantonese prostitute who quickly rose through the ranks in the brothel of her birthplace city Guangzhou. She was famous for using her incredibly effective “pillow talk” to influence men. She eventually gained control over a large number of pirate ships and organized them into a well-oiled machine that attracted the attention of the famous Chinese pirate Cheng I. They chose to marry each other so that their pirate business could be united and grew to incredible size. She took great advantage from this marriage union, solidifying her place in the large pirate fleet and organizing a coalition with many other large Cantonese pirate fleets. After the death of her husband Cheng I in 1807, she took control of the fleet, immediately starting a romantic relationship with Cheng’s adopted son (and lover) Chang Paou.

Ching Shih’s control over the pirate fleet at that time was absolute, which was possible not only because of her well maintained political maneuvers what enabled her to rule unopposed but also because of her insistence that all pirates under her command respect very strict pirate code. That pirate code had three main rules and several secondary ones, and all of them influenced pirate sailors into the tight-knit group that was very organized and tough to beat. Reports from several governments with naval interests in the Chinese Sea (even mighty Great Britain!) reported that pirates from the Ching Shih organization known as “Red Flag Fleet” were determined in their attacks and unyielding in defense or imminent capture when outnumbered.

The core rules of Cheng I Sao’s fleet were::

  • Pirates who gave unsanctioned orders or who refused to follow orders were executed on the spot.
  • Stealing from the “public fund” of captured goods or money or raiding villages that supported pirates was punishable by death.
  • All captured goods, money or slaves had to be presented for inspection. The rewards were handed out in a predetermined way.
  • It was absolutely prohibited to have sex or rape female captives. Pirates could marry pretty captives if they had means to support them and be faithful to them, but rest were either ransomed or freed. Punishment for having sex or raping them was death.
  • Various other offenses were punishable by flogging, ironing, quartering and mutilation (this was almost exclusively performed on deserters).

As a ruler of the largest pirate fleet in the human history, Ching Shih even managed to create problems for many governments with largest naval fleets in the world. China, England, France and other countries who had interest to clear pirate activity from Chinese Sea had no solution for her, and military involvement was out of the question. However, after she started loosing grip of her fleet in 1810 and the pirate alliance broke into six distinct groups, she elected to take the big opportunity that was offered to her by Qing Emperor Jiaqing. She and Chang Paou received full royal pardons. While Chang Paou (under a new name of Cheung Po Tsai) continued to hunt remnants of dissolved Red Flag Fleet as a leader of newly formed governmental pirate hunting fleet until his early death, Ching Shih returned to land and resumed her life as Mistress of a local brothels and organizer of various smuggling and gambling enterprises.

She died in her sleep at the age of 69 in 1844.

Name: Ching Shih
Known As: Cheng I Sao
Category: Pirate, Pirate Captain
Nationality: Chinese
Born: 1775
Active: 1801 - 1810
Activity Region: China Sea
Died: 1844