When you think of the word “pirate”, rough men with bushy beards and hooks for hands sailing around Europe is usually the first image to come to mind. It might surprise you to know that one of the most vicious and powerful pirates of all time was a Chinese woman. And thus is the story of Ching Shih, one of the biggest badasses in all of history.
Ching Shih in battle against the Chinese government
Ching Shih was born some time around 1775, and much of what happened during her early life is still unknown. Her real story starts when she was working as a prostitute in the city of Canton when she was captured and held hostage by pirates. Little did these pirates know that the woman that they were capturing would someday send them all to Davy Jones locker.
After winning the favor of some of the higher ranking pirates, Ching Shih was married to a pirate named Zheng Yi. Zheng Yi came from a family who had been pirates for a hundred years, and had a reputation as a man not to be messed with. They used this reputation to acquire ships for their fleet, which they aptly named the Red Flag Fleet. Unfortunately, their marriage was cut short when Zheng Yi was killed in Vietnam.
If Ching Shih had lived today, she would have made one hell of a politician. Knowing the importance of networking, she began making connections and solidifying her authority with powerful members of her husband’s family immediately following his death. Eventually, she worked her way up to captain. Anyone who was angry about working for a female pirate was quickly quieted by the set of strict rules that she put in place. Breaking any of her rules, such as the rules against raping female prisoners or disobeying her orders, resulted in one’s immediate death. Needless to say, the pirates followed them.
With her new fleet of pirates and ships, Ching Shih was basically unstoppable. She and her pirates became infamous for ransacking towns all over the Chinese coastline. In total, Ching Shih the Red Flag Fleet controlled 1,500 ships and had 80,000 members. When the Chinese government tried to stop her by attacking her with their Imperial fleet, instead of backing down Ching Shih went to battle and won by a landslide. Luckily for her, she even got some free ships out of the war.
By keeping a strict code of rules for her pirates (and being a merciless killing machine) Ching Shih quickly became the most powerful pirate in the world. In fact, she was so powerful that the Admiral of the Chinese Navy committed suicide when he thought that she was going to capture him. Talk about a reputation.
Eventually Ching Shih’s reign came to an end. After being beaten by her military strategies for years, the Chinese government decided to grant Ching Shih amnesty. She was even allowed to keep the loot she had gathered over the years. Once her pirating days were done, she moved to the countryside and opened a casino. She spent her last days having fun and spending her money, and lived to age 69.
So after being a kidnapped prostitute, Ching Shih rose through the ranks of her captors to become one of the most powerful pirates of all time. She was a military strategist, a political mastermind, and a natural leader. It was the perfect crime, and best of all; she got away with it in the end.