red flag fleet

The Pirate Queen of the South China Sea

The Red Flag Fleet under Ching Shih’s rule went undefeated, despite attempts by Qing dynasty officials, the Portuguese navy, and the East India Company to vanquish it. After three years of notoriety on the high seas, Ching Shih finally retired in 1810 by accepting an offer of amnesty from the Chinese government. Ching Shih died in 1844, at the ripe old age of 69.At the dawn of the 1800s, a former prostitute from a floating brothel in the city of Canton was wed to Cheng I, a fearsome pirate who operated in the South China Sea in the Qing dynasty. Though the name under which we now know her, Ching Shih, simply means “Cheng’s widow,” the legacy she left behind far exceeded that of her husband’s. Following his death, she succeeded him and commanded over 1,800 pirate ships, and an estimated 80,000 men.

Her husband, Ching I, was the formidable commander of the Red Flag Fleet of pirate ships. He married a 26-year-old Ching Shih in 1801. She quickly took to the pirate life and when Ching I died six years later, Ching Shih wasn’t going to let Ching I’s adopted son, Cheung Po Tsai take over.  Cheung Po Tsai, however, was more than just Ching Shih’s adopted son –-  the young man had also been Ching I’s lover.

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Ching Shih 鄭氏 (1775-1844) Cheng I Sao

Ching Shih was one of Asia’s strongest pirates who terrorized the China Sea in the early 19th century. At the height of her power she commanded at least 1000 junks and 20.000 to 40.000 pirates.

Ching Shih was born in 1775 in the Guangdong province under the name of Shil Xiang Gu. She worked as a prostitute in the city Canton, but was captured by pirates and married Zheng Yi, a famous pirate. She participated in her husbands piracy, and together they made a coalition of Cantonese pirates, known as the Red Flag Fleet.

When Zheng Yi died in 1807, Ching Shih took over leadership. To stop her rivals she sought support of powerful members of her husbands family. She also made herself essential to the remaining captains of the Red Flag Fleet. When she needed someone loyal to help her manage the fleets daily operations, she chose Chang Pao, her husbands first mate. Ching Shih and Chang Pao eventually married and she had a child with him.

Ching Shih further united the Red Flag Fleet by making a code of very strict laws. Special rules were made for female captives: standard practice was to either release women or make them concubines or wives, but this was not allowed on Ching Shih’s fleet. Pirates who raped the captives were executed, but if they had consensual sex with captives, both the pirate and the woman would be killed.

The fleet took control over many coastal villages, sometimes even imposing levies and taxes. The Chinese, Portugese and British navies all tried to defeat Ching Shih, but none succeeded, so eventually in 1810 they offered amnesty to all pirates. Ching Shih began negotiations with government official Zhang Bai Ling and got everything she asked for: she even could keep her loot. Ching Shih then ended her career, and returned to Canton after Chang Pao’s death with her son to open a gambling house, becoming one of the few pirate captains to retire from piracy. She eventually died of old age at 69.