Ching Shih: The Notorious Pirate Who Rejoined Civilian Life
In 1775 in the Guangdong (Canton) province of southeastern China, a girl named Shil Gang Xu was born. She reportedly grew up to be a prostitute on a floating brothel but would later find notoriety after a chance encounter with Zheng Yi in 1801. Zheng Yi, a pirate, was from a family of pirates, and prior to meeting Shil Gang Xu, he abducted the 15-year-old Zhang Bao in 1798, pressed him into piracy as well.
Married To A Pirate
What exactly happened during Zheng Yi’s encounter with Shil Gang Xu is unclear, but according to some, Zheng Yi ordered a raid on the bordello where she was working and captured her. According to others, Zheng Yi just asked her to marry him. Other sources also claim that she had a reputation as a shrewd businesswoman, something that attracted Zheng Yi.
They Were Partners
No matter what happened, Shil Gang Xu said yes, but it was a conditional yes. Zheng Yi had to make her an equal partner in fleet leadership and had to give her 50% of the admiral’s share of anything they took. Zheng Yi agreed to this, and kept his word. The husband-and-wife team ended up running the fleet of pirate ships together.
Creating The Confederation
When they got their start, their fleet was comprised of only 200 ships. However, they entered into a confederation and ended up with between 1700 and 1800 ships. In the confederation, each pirate leader signed an agreement to sacrifice some autonomy for the greater good. The six fleets that comprised the confederation could be identified by the color of the flags they flew. Zheng Yi’s fleet, the largest in the confederation, flew a red flag, hence their name, the Red Flag Fleet.
They Built A Reputation
They had a reputation, as they terrorized the seas. In one instance, the Red Flag Fleet blockaded a Portuguese trading port at Macau in 1804. When the Portuguese tried to fend off the attack, the Red Flag overpowered them. The British Navy decided not to get involved, and only sent naval escorts to protect their own ships and the ships of their allies.
She Took Over The Pirate Confederation
In addition to piracy, they started a family, as they had two sons: Zheng Yinghi, born in 1803, and Zheng Xiongshi, born in 1807. However, the marriage did not last very long. Zheng Yi died on November 16, 1807, when he fell overboard (although some sources claim he died from other causes). Shil Gang Xu took over command of the pirate confederation, and with her new position, came a new name. At this point, she became known by the name which we know today: Ching Shih. This new name translates to “Ching’s (Zheng’s) widow.” Zhang Bao had a new position as well, becoming the official commander of the Red Flag Fleet.
She Was Ruthless
A ruthless ruler overseeing between 50,000 and 70,000 pirates, Ching Shih had a strict code of conduct. Under her command the pirates had to register all money they seized before they distributed it amongst themselves. The ship responsible for the capture could keep 20% of the bounty, while the rest of it was put into a collective fund for the remainder of the fleet. If one of them were caught withholding the bounty, they would be punished by whipping or occasionally, beheading. Shih’s pirates treated their captors with violence and were known to nail resisters’ feet to the decks of her ships before beating them.
The Qing Navy Was No Match For Them
The Pirate Confederation became more active in 1808 to the detriment of China. During two engagements, they managed to reduce the Chinese provincial fleet by half. However, in 1809, they suffered an important loss. The Qing navy attacked and destroyed the White Flag Fleet. Undeterred Ching Shih’s raided towns, killing thousands and sinking dozens of Chinese government vessels. The Chinese called on the Portuguese to help, and together they formed a blockade, which Ching Shih and Zhang Bao were eventually able to break through.
The Pirates Negotiated Their Own Surrender
The Chinese realized they could not defeat Ching Shih, but the motivation for Ching Shih’s surrender was unclear. However, it seems that the pirates were in a position of power that allowed them to negotiate their surrender. On April 20, 1810, Ching Shih and Zhang Bao officially surrendered, and Zhang Bao was awarded the rank of lieutenant. He was also allowed to retain a private fleet of 20 to 30 ships, and after his retirement from piracy, he defeated the Blue Flag Fleet. He received another concession, permission to marry Ching Shih. As for Ching Shih, she received amnesty and was allowed to keep her ill-gotten gains. In 1813, they had a son, Zhang Yulin. Zhang Bao died in 1822, while serving as colonel in charge of the Penghu garrison. Ching Shih returned with Zhang Yulin to Guangdong where she became the proprietor of a gambling house in 1824. She died in 1844.