Who Was Ching Shih?

Pirates have always been a fascinating topic for peoples of almost all age groups. It’s a well-known fact how our seas and oceans had been terrorised by pirates throughout history.

Pirates like Blackbeard, Anne bony, Henry Morgan, etc. are considered the most feared and successful pirates of all time. But if you dig a little deeper into the history, there lies an unsung story of the most successful pirate lord the world ever had.

She was an Asian woman named Zheng Yi Sao, known by the name Ching Shih. She was far more spectacular than any famous American or European pirates mentioned in history.

Her name Ching Shih means “wife of ching”.Her actual birth name is Shih Yang. She was born in 1775, in a poverty-stricken society of Guandong province in Qing China.

Although Ching Shih is known as the invincible pirate queen, her past life was nothing less than a nightmare. Born into a poor family, she was forced into prostitution at the young age of 13, in order to keep the body and soul of her family together. She was sent to work in one of the floating brothels also known as flower boats, in the Cantonese port city.

In the year 1801, Ching Shih caught the eyes of Zheng Yi, a pirate and commander of the Red Flag Fleet. Without wasting time Zheng Yi proposed to her for marriage, but Cheng Shih was not a mere girl waiting for her knight in shining armour. She was a lady with insight and ambitions. She agreed to marry him under the condition that she would get 50% of everything in Zheng Yi’s possession, as well as she will be his partner in piracy. Smitten by her beauty and personality, Zheng Yi agreed to all her conditions and finally, they got married.

Ching Shih was not only ambitious but also a cunning tactician. Along with her husband, she turned their rivals into their allies. Within few years, the Red flag fleet became the biggest pirate fleet of China.

Ching Shih and Zheng Yi abducted a young teenage boy named Cheung Po, during a loot and adopted him as their son and heir of the Red Flag fleet

Ching Shih’s happy moments didn’t last long. Just after six years of marriage, in 1807, Zheng Yi passed away while sailing in Vietnam. This was the turning point of Ching Shi’s life. She took this tragedy as an opportunity to rise to the power, instead of falling apart after the death of her husband.

Cheung Po was appointed as the official commander of the fleet, but all the decisions were taken by Ching Shih. Everything was done on her command and Cheung Po also had to ask her before taking any action.

Soon after gaining command over the fleet, Ching Shih revealed that she’ll marry Cheung Po in future. Everyone was shocked to the core after hearing this, considering their mother-son relationship. Many rumours spread like forest fire but, Ching Shih was least affected because she was determined to be with Cheung Po.

Ching Shih was not only a cunning pirate but also a strict commander, she made her pirate code which was meant to be followed by every pirate under her command. This pirate code mainly focused on the treatment of female captives. Some of the rules under the pirates’ code were –

  • Female captives who were considered “ugly” were released unharmed.
  • If a pirate wishes to marry a beautiful female captive, he has to take care of her and remain faithful to her.
  • If anyone was found cheating on their wives, they were executed on spot, along with the second lady involved.
  • If a pirate dares to rape a female captive, he was executed.
  • Pirates who dared to desert the fleet were hunted down and executed.
  • Pirates who tried to steal anything from the loot, disobey Ching Shih’s order, violet any rules were given harsh punishment like flogging, quartering, clapping in irons etc.

Under Ching Shih’s command Red Flag fleet became invincible and the most successful and biggest fleet China ever had. It had more than 800 ships, 1000 smaller vessels and 70000-80000 pirates, including both men and women. The whole South China sea was under the control of the Red flag fleet. Not even a single ship was allowed to pass without paying taxes. Anyone who refused to pay the tax was attacked and looted. Ching Shih was called “The Terror of South China”.

Ching Shih became a thorn in eyes of Chinese authorities, they desperately wanted to bring her down. In 1808, they sent the Chinese navy to destroy the Red Flag fleet. But they tasted a shameful defeat, they were crushed by Ching Shih’s fleet, to the point that the Chinese government has to enlist fishing boats into the navy.

In 1809, the British tried to mess with her but ended up losing. She even captured 7 British sailors and one official from the East India Company.

As the saying goes, every sun has to set. Ching’s reign also hit the end when she got into a fierce battle with navies of 3 countries altogether. The British, Chinese and Portuguese navy. In 1810, the Red flag fleet was finally overthrown by the Portuguese navy in the battle of the Tiger mouth.

But this was not the end, after all the incredible pirate queen Ching Shih was no joke. Even after getting vanquished, she managed to get amnesty from the Chinese government. She went into the governor’s office with 17 women and children all unarmed, to negotiate. Under the amnesty,

  • Except for around 400 pirates, all the pirates along with Ching Shih and Cheung Po were allowed to walk away with all of their loot.
  • Since Ching Shih and Cheung Po were mother and son in eyes of law, she asked the governor to dissolve their mother-son relationship and allow them to get married. The governor agreed for the same.
  • Cheung Po was appointed as a colonel in the imperial navy.
  • Ching Shih was awarded an Imperial Decree.

Finally, Ching Shih retired from piracy. In 1813, Ching Shih and Cheung Po had their first child, a boy named Cheung Yu pin. But unfortunately, Cheung Po passed away in 1822 while serving in the navy. After her husband’s sudden demise, Cheng Shih settled down in Macau along with her family. She opened a gambling house and ran a brothel there.

In 1844 at the age of 69, Ching Shih died peacefully in her bed.


Ching Shih was an Asian woman and the most successful pirate on the face of the earth. Born into a poor family in Guangdong she was forced into prostitution. But at the age of 26 in 1801, she married Zheng Yi, a pirate and commander of the Red Flag Fleet.

After the sudden demise of Zheng Yi in 1807, Ching Shih took over the command of the fleet along with her adopted son Cheung Po (later Ching married him, dissolving their mother-son relationship). Under her command, the Red flag fleet became the most powerful and biggest fleet in the history of China.

In her command, she defeated the navies of 3 countries. Her fleet ruled the South China sea. In 1810, she was finally defeated by the Portuguese navy in the battle of Tiger mouth. She managed to negotiate with the Chinese government and was allowed to walk free with all her loot. In 1844, at the age of 69, she peacefully left the world.

Related Articles


For Worksheets & PrintablesJoin Now