Rags to riches

Courtesy of Wikimedia.org

Ching Shih, born Shi Xianggu in the Guangdong Province of China in 1775, started out underprivileged, a young woman forced into a life of prostitution. But with tenacity, cunning, and sheer force, she grew into one of the most powerful and successful pirates in the history of the world.

In the brothels of Canton where she worked in her youth, she met a notorious pirate, Cheng I, from the famous family of Cheng pirates that had, for many years, terrorized the China seas. She created an equal partnership with him during their marriage, overseeing his crews and handling many of his business affairs. She helped negotiate and facilitate a grand pirate alliance, bringing together fleets of ships from up and down the Asian coast.

She became known as The Terror of South China.

In 1807, Cheng I passed away in Vietnam. This was when Ching Shih made the calculated decision to take command of his fleet and create the largest, most powerful pirate fleet in the history of the world. The Red Flag Fleet contained more than 1,500 ships with 60,000–80,000 pirates under Ching’s command. She ran a ruthless enterprise in which she created laws and enacted severe punishments on those who worked under her and the villages and ships she looted along the way. One example was when she created a tax on the treasure that came in from every ship within her command. Eighty percent of the stolen goods would go to her and the fleet’s collective fund, while the remaining 20% was left to that ship’s crew to be divided.

She became known as The Terror of South China. From Macao to Canton, she controlled villages, kept her business running, and managed a crew of unruly pirates. The Chinese government had little oversight, even with the help of the Portuguese and British navies. Eventually, in 1810, she negotiated an amnesty for herself and the vast majority of her fleet with the Chinese government, including the attractive feature that The Red Flag Fleet would keep the wealth it had acquired.

At this time, she retired from her life as a pirate and married her adoptive son, Cheung Po Tsai. He had been captured as a boy and risen through the fleet’s ranks. With him she had a son, and the couple opened a very successful gambling house. Madame Ching lived a life of wealth, prosperity, and ease until her death in 1844 at the age of 69.

Though Ching Shih is not your classic female heroine, she embodies the power and strength women have always had throughout history, but which is too often overlooked or forgotten. Her story is of the classic rags to riches variety: she was a strong-willed woman who knew she was destined for more.

Mollie Braen

About Mollie Braen

A graduate of the University of Denver, including a semester at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, Mollie majored in Art History and minored in Marketing and History; she plans to continue her education with an MBA in Non-Profit Management. Mollie performs administrative work for Research Services, supporting the researchers in ordering microfilm, managing correspondence with constituents, and organizing research materials. In her free time, Mollie, who recently moved to Boston from Los Angeles, enjoys travelling. With a family home on Lake Sebago in Maine, she often travels there as well as other parts of New England.

12 thoughts on “Rags to riches

  1. Um, wow. Can’t say I’m a newly-converted fan of this woman. She pulled together all that is “lovely” in this world: sex trade, pillaging, greed, gambling, (probably murder and assassination) and a sexual alliance with her adopted son.

  2. At what point does admiration for greed, avarice, murder, manipulation, intrigue and profiting at the expense of others become admirable just because she was a woman? Strength without ethics and morality…the end justifies the means, at any cost, and admirable because of gender? Sorry, don’t buy it. Connection to genealogy? Minimal, other than pointing out that our ancestral women could be just as, if not more, focused on wealth and power as men. And the denouement, that she got away with it, and is somehow transformed into a role model? Sad. And somehow familiar.

  3. I think what you are missing is that she created a sense of decency and order within a group of violent, greedy men. She created a form of government and was able to keep order within such a large group, so spread out.
    Also, this is purely for entertainment purposes and to speak more about other women throughout history, not just the white women in the United States that are so often remembered and spoken about in genealogy.

    1. I don’t think I’m missing anything.

      From the article:
      “The Chinese government had little oversight, even with the help of the Portuguese and British navies. Eventually, in 1810, she negotiated an amnesty for herself and the vast majority of her fleet with the Chinese government, including the attractive feature that The Red Flag Fleet would keep the wealth it had acquired.”

      Does anyone really believe that the Chinese government had ‘little oversight’, even with the help of 2 of the most powerful merchant navies at that time? This is fairy-tale land.

      Shi Xianggu (later Ching Shih) came from the ‘right stuff’ and that’s why she was married to “Cheng I”, and “made the calculated decision to take command of his fleet and create the largest, most powerful pirate fleet in the history of the world,” and was able to “negotiate an amnesty”.

      That was a preordained outcome after service to those in power.
      I paraphrase Miles Mathis here, “the things we are expected to believe..”

  4. I am sorry to see the snarkiness that has become so prevalent in general discourse in our culture recently leak into our discussions of history and genealogy here. Ching Shih’s story is also part of the history of women, like it or not.

    Throughout history, including western Europe and the Americas, women who have not had opportunities to express their intelligence and drive have turned to whatever options made themselves available. We do not have to admire her, but I think her story raises some legitimate questions about women and their expected roles– and what it took to break out of those roles in a repressive society. Examples of women like Ching Shih can be found in our culture too. What does “Chinese-ness” have to do with it?

    We read articles about the (presumably male) pirates of the North Sea, the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean, and recognize them as often brilliant, sometimes cruel, frequently avaricious, and we may even admire their audacity and gumption. Heaven forbid a woman (a Chinese woman at that) exhibit some of those same characteristics. It’s enough to make the reader squirm in discomfort. (And yes, I admit, I did too, but also saw the larger context. Why should anyone with that ability have to turn to such a way of living?

    Ah, but don’t forget that Sir Walter Scott, that rascal, was an officially sanctioned pirate who did his own bit of business on the side. Why so indignant about a woman who put her clearly superior organizational skills to work in the only venue available to her? From the sounds of it, those skills could even have had an influence in reducing the violence and conflict involved. Not sure you can say that about European pirates, state sanctioned or not.

  5. Ching Shih. Oh, had her name been Alexander, how she might be proclaimed indomitable, a thinker outside the traditional box, a slasher of the tangled knot. Thank you, Mollie for giving us a glimpse of the genealogy of a woman whose feet were not bound by the cultural decorum of the era. Ching Shih. She was warned, she was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

    1. Totally agree. To have pulled herself up from her horrible childhood as a victim and become an independent woman in that time and place is just incredible.

      Our own government sanctioned piracy, and it is a part of the history of the world whether or not it is ethical or moral. Perhaps it is more jarring to see a woman in that role?

      Thanks, Mollie, for sharing her story. Maybe Hollywood will make a “Pirates of South China” with Ching Shih as the star?? Oh wait, this pirate is a woman- that would never sell.

  6. Interesting story, especially following a recent discussion about tracing maternal lines, and finding women who were more than just the wives of their husbands. Do I approve of her occupation choices? Irrelevant.

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