If you ask most westerners about female pirates, they’ll either give you a blank look or pipe up with a fact about Anne Bonny, and maybe Mary Read. But there’s one woman who could take on both of them–who had a fleet of ships and commanded the South China Sea.
Shi Yang was born in 1775. Her family was poor, and at a young age she was forced into prostitution. She quickly learned, however, that the things she learned from her lovers could be used to her advantage, and used their “pillow talk” to influence powerful men. She was beautiful, charming, and intelligent, and they were more than happy to listen to her.
If you think she was just on her back the whole time, though, you’d be wrong. Shi was working on a “flower boat”–basically, a floating brothel that hung out in various Cantonese ports.
Eventually, she crossed paths with a pirate captain named Zeng Yi. When she was 26, they married, and she left sex work behind–but only on the condition that Zeng Yi shared everything with her 50/50. Shockingly, he agreed. He was familiar with the powerful connections she’d made through the brothel, and respected both her social and business power, as well as her ability to manipulate events and people to her advantage. Also, she was beautiful.
Zeng Yi was highly respected, and as an extension of this Shi Yang was given the honorific of Zheng Yi Sao, which meant “wife of Zeng Yi.” More commonly, at least in the west, she’s referred to as Ching Shih. I’ve seen five different ways of writing/pronouncing this name, and I’m not entirely certain as to the reason. As far as I can tell they all mean the same thing, just in different dialects. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to refer to her as Ching Shih from here forward, as that seems to be the most common name for her, at least in the English-language sources I’ve found.
Anyway, Ching Shih was not content to just be a traditional wife who cooked and sewed and stayed out of sight. From 1801-1805, Zeng Yi and his men fought Vietnamese pirates and navel vessels. He had at his command 200 ships. The pirates were led by his own cousin. Ching Shih, who was a gifted negotiator and organizer, not only made her husband’s fleet more efficient, but was able to negotiate an agreement between the two cousins, so that they began sailing under the same flag. All told, six pre-existing fleets agreed to join forces. Each flew a different color flag, with the Red Flag Fleet being the largest and the one in charge.
Zeng Yi had an adopted son; In western culture, we would consider him a first mate or first officer, but according to the tradition at the time, he had to be adopted by his superior to be second in command. Zhang Bao therefore officially took command of the Red Flag Fleet in 1807 when Zeng Yi was killed–some reports say he was swept overboard in a storm or by a tsunami, other say he was murdered–while Ching Shih unofficially took over the fleet as a whole.
If Ching Shih and Zhang Bao weren’t lovers before Zeng Yi died, they certainly were after, to the extent that they eventually married. Take the rumors for what you will, however. Among the many new rules Ching Shih implemented on the fleet, rape and extramarital affairs were both punishable by execution. She also had a policy of releasing injured or pregnant female captives as soon as possible, while the remainder would either be sold into slavery or given the option of marrying a member of the crew, if it was mutually consensual. She might not have been perfect, but she certainly had some “modern” ideas for her time (*cringe* women are people! How modern!).
Around 1807-1808, the fleet was starting to attract a bit of attention from the government. They fought back the British East India Company, the Portuguese, and the Qing Navy in just a matter of hours. She offered the sailors a chance to join her fleet. Since the pirates were generally treated better and paid more than navy men, a huge number “jumped ship” so to speak and signed on with the Red Flag Fleet.
The Chinese emperor was understandably upset about this. Alliances hadn’t worked, fighting didn’t work…He just couldn’t beat Ching Shih and her roughly 1800 boat fleet. That’s right, between 1801-1810, the fleet went from a measly 200 boats to 1800. They were the largest fleet in the world.
After ten years of basically leading an army, however, Ching Shih decided it was time for something new. Maybe she got sick of dealing with people attacking her all the time, or maybe she was just ready to settle down. Another influence might have been that with 1800 ships and a hundred thousand men, power was starting to fracture within the fleet–it was simply too big and loyalties and opinions were becoming divided.
At any rate, she took up the emperor’s offer of amnesty and received a pardon in 1810. The men who followed her to shore were granted pork, wine, and cash, and Zhang Bao was allowed to keep a small fleet for fishing. They married legally, and Ching Shih opened her own gambling house and brothel. In 1813 they had a son, and later a daughter, but in 1822 her second husband died.
Like her early years, her retirement is mostly shrouded in mystery as she lived a quiet life, running her business and her family. But it is absolutely incredible that she went from nothing to being arguably the most powerful woman on the planet, with over a hundred thousand men at her command, and then gave it all up after a decade–and was allowed to retire quietly, rather than being imprisoned or executed, as most of these stories end.
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