Historical Figures

Ching Shih, "The Terror of South China"

Also known as Chang I Sao or Madame Tsching, Ching Shih, “the Terror of South China” (1784 – 1844 ) commanded one of the most powerful pirate fleets in history; so powerful that no navy has ever been able to defeat it.

The Red Flag Fleet

Little is known about the childhood of Ching Shih, who is first known through accounts as a Cantonese prostitute by the name of Shih Yang. Captured by pirates, she married Cheng I in 1801. A renowned pirate, her husband descended from a family that had been practicing piracy since the 17th century. With his fame and a certain military power, Cheng I manages to unite in coalition a powerful pirate fleet of 400 ships, known as the "Red Flag Fleet". Together with Ching Shih (whose name means "widow of Cheng"), they adopt a son, Chang Poa.

In 1807, Cheng I died in Vietnam. His widow then immediately set about consolidating her power through political maneuvering, cultivating personal relationships and securing the support of her late husband's family as well as the pirate captains who were loyal to her. Securing control of the Pirate Coalition, she chooses her adopted son, Chang Poa, to assist her in managing the Red Flag Fleet. Within weeks, the two become lovers; they will end up getting married.

To unite the fleet, Ching Shih established a severe and strictly enforced code of laws; thus, several violations are punishable by death:giving orders not communicated by the leaders of the fleet, disobeying orders, robbing the villages which assist the pirates, not pooling the loot or even raping a prisoner. The code provides other punishments for less serious breaches, such as flogging, irons or solitary confinement. To the pirates who desert, an ear is cut off. Despite this severity, Richard Glasspoole, a captive on a pirate ship, writes that the code “brought up a force fearless in attack, desperate in defence, and unyielding even outnumbered. »

The Terror of South China

Ching Shih's coalition plunders merchant ships and sacks villages along rivers; at the time, the British referred to it, with a hint of admiration, as the “Terror of South China”. In 1808, the government launched ships against them and other pirates to stop them, but without success. Capturing ships allows the pirate to strengthen her fleet. On the other hand, O-po-tae, a rival pirate, manages to beat Ching Shih in retreat during a battle. Worried that the pirate might seek revenge, O-po-tae obtains an amnesty from the government for himself and his men. The royal fleet can then devote itself to fighting that of Ching Shih. Faced with their difficulty in defeating the Red Flag fleet, they proposed, in 1810, an amnesty to all pirates, and Ching Shih accepted it.

Keeping his loot, Ching Shih opens a brothel in Guangzhou. She died in 1844, at the age of 69.

Useful links

The Wikipedia page of Ching Shih
The Wikipedia page of Ching Shih in English