19th Century, Women in History

Women in History, Part 1 – Ching Shih – from Prostitute to Pirate Queen

Since it’s Women’s History Month, I figured I should do a post or two about some pretty interesting women through history. Since my youngest child is studying Chinese at university (*waves at youngest*), I settled on Ching Shih, Pirate Queen of the Qinq Dynasty. Definitely one of the most interesting women in history; she is in a class all her own.

The first strange fact I came across is that Ching Shih really isn’t her name. History doesn’t KNOW her name; Ching Shih just means “Widow of Cheng”. Cheng Yi, already a successful captain in the, shall we say, business of liberating other people’s property and taking possession of it himself, saw Ching at a floating brothel. They married in 1801, and together they commanded the “Red Fleet”. Cheng Yi had managed to bring together an impressive armada by uniting rival pirate factions under his red flag, and Ching wasn’t the type to sit on the shore and wait for her man to bring home the bacon.

Picture of Chinese junk (ship)
Chinese Junk (a junk is a type of Chinese sailing ship)

Turns out that Cheng could have done a LOT worse; Ching was incredibly financially savvy, and her talents did not go to waste. There’s even a rumor that, as a condition of marrying him, Cheng had to give her equal control of the pirate armada. Six years later, though, Cheng would be winging his way to his eternal reward, and Ching would step into his shoes.

Now, the control of the fleet SHOULD have gone to her husband’s adopted son (and lover, but we won’t dwell on that); however, about a week after Cheng’s death, Ching took the same young man, Cheng Po, as HER lover. She’d eventually marry him.

The Western world had a stigma against women on ships; China didn’t, but in command of one? Unprecendented. This didn’t seem to hamper her any, and it was reported in 1809 by a captive that she had 1,000 large boats, 800 smaller boats, and about 80,000 pirates under her command.

Boss babe, indeed.

To keep her huge fleet together, Ching Shih used a uniform set of laws. This code was strict, but it was often surprisingly fair, even to our eyes:

  • any pirate giving orders himself or disobeying his superior would be executed immediately.
  • if a pirate raped a woman captive, he’d be executed.
  • if a pirate married a woman captive, he HAD to be faithful to her, not be abusive, and take care of her.
  • if an unattractive woman was taken captive, she was to be set free, unharmed, as soon as convenient.
  • if a town had paid tribute to the fleet and a pirate still did the town dirty, he’d be beheaded immediately.
Ching Shih Chinese pirate, women in history

Speaking of towns, as Ching Shih became more powerful, she began taking smaller boats up rivers. Towns along trading routes that normally would have been free from pirate worry now had to be concerned. Many paid her tribute, and it appears that she kept her word to then leave them alone.

This pirate badass eventually became so powerful that the Emperor himself sent a fleet to challenge her. Not only did the fleet fail, she took about 60 of his ships captive. She did, however, make the crews of those ships an offer they couldn’t refuse. They could join her, or be nailed to the deck. Most chose to join. Imagine that!

Being bloody minded, the Emperor convinced Portugal and Britain to help him deal with this female menace. Again, she defeated the forces sent against her. As a matter of fact, she defeated all comers for the next TWO YEARS.

Finally accepting that he wasn’t going to get rid of this problem through violence, as she was just better at it than he was, the Emperor offered a deal. If Ching Shih would bend the knee and disband her armada, she could keep her freedom and her fortune. She agreed, but would only bend the knee before the Emperor in a marriage ceremony to Cheng Po. This was deemed acceptable.

Thus, the reign of the Pirate Queen Ching Shih came to an end. She would run a gambling (and possibly opium dealing) establishment until her death at the age of 69.

Come back to read women in history, part 2! If you have a badass babe you’d like me to research, drop me a line!


Green Mountain Nantucket Blend – listed as a medium roast, but I find it more on the dark side. Sweet, mildly floral, and surprisingly enjoyable even though I’m not a darker roast fan.


Best Pirate Ever mug. This one makes me giggle.

Best Pirate Ever mug


Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas, by Laura Sook Duncombe

Chinese Women Through Chinese Eyes, by Li Yu-Ning (not about Ching Shih specifically, but it will open your eyes to Chinese women through the ages)

Some of the links above may be affiliate links; if you chose to purchase any of the products above using the link, I get a little coffee money. It costs you nothing to use the link, and thank you if you do!

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