August 13, 2022

Women’s history month: Madame Ching Shih


This archived article was written by: Laura Eisert

In early 19th century China, women were viewed as property and often not even given their own names, simply being referred to as “daughter of…” or “wife of…”, belonging to their male family members. They were expected to stay home and raise children, preferably sons. One woman rose out of this oppression to become a pirate captain. Today, she is known as Madame Ching, Ching Shih, or Cheng I Sao and is considered to be the most successful pirate in history.
Working as a prostitute in Guangzhou, she won the favor of Cheng I, who offered her half control of his pirate fleet in exchange for her hand. They were wed and quickly became the ultimate power-couple of pirates. Using the family reputation, and a bit of coercion, they worked to create a coalition of pirate fleets. In 1807 when Cheng I died, Madame Ching immediately began her efforts to solidify her authority over the Red Flag Fleet.
By appointing her adopted son, Chang Pao, the captain of the fleet she gained his support. Then she worked on other key relationships to solidify her authority and control over the fleet. Under Madame Ching, the fleet numbered 1,800 ships and approximately 80,000 men. With such a large group, Madame Ching had strict rules to keep them all in line. If you broke the rules, or if she though you did then punishment was harsh and swift, most often resulting in beheading.
The list of offenses that would result in beheading includes: giving orders without permission, not following orders, and being unfaithful in marriage. If a pirate wanted to keep a female captive they were considered married and had to remain faithful to her from then on. If they had sex out of marriage the man was beheaded and the bride was thrown overboard with cannonballs on her ankles. If a pirate raped a captive, it certainly caused for beheading.
These very strict rules let Madame Ching become the most feared pirate. Her fleet came to control the Chinese coastal towns, imposing taxes and removing all opposition. There were even smaller boats that rowed up the rivers to attack more villages. There were two neighboring towns on the river that put together a small militia to fight back. Both towns were ransacked and all the resisters were found headless.
Ships crossing her territory could either pay for safe passage, or be at the mercy of the Red Flag Fleet. Not all were willing to submit to this dichotomy and chose the third option of taking on the fleet. The Portuguese navy, East India company and Qing Dynasty each had forces attempt to take on the fleet. Each and every one was defeated in the end by the superior military strategies of Madame Ching.
The Chinese government eventually grew tired of their land being controlled by pirates. All the attempts of force to remove Madame Ching’s hold failed dramatically. So the government offered amnesty to all pirates, in hopes that she would accept the deal. Madame Ching didn’t take what was offered, and negotiated everything she desired. In the end she kept all she had earned as a pirate and received more money from the government in exchange for her retirement. She lived out the rest of her days in comfort, as the owner of a gambling house and brothel.
Madame Ching was the most successful pirate due to the numbers she commanded, the large geographic area she controlled, and how long she lived (pirates did not generally live to see retirement). She is a great example of female success in a male-dominated industry and deserves recognition for her accomplishments.

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