Once upon a time in China, there lived a lowly prostitute who later became China’s “Lord of the Pirates.” Her name was Ching Shih.
Shih, born as Shil Gang Xu in 1775, made her mark in China’s history as one of its most successful pirates. She rose to power after taking over the notorious Red Flag Fleet and spearheading as many as 70,000 pirates. Under her command, the fleet managed to set up an organized system of business and loot massive resources.
Shih grew up in the province of Guangdong, southeast of the country, where she worked as a prostitute for a floating brothel. But some time in 1801, things changed in her life: she met Zheng Yi, commander of the Red Flag Fleet, who noticed her beauty and expressed interest in being with her.
Interestingly, how Yi and Shih got together remains debated to this date, according to Ancient Origins. Some claim Yi ordered his men to raid the brothel and acquire Shih by force; others assume he only asked her hand in marriage.
Either way, the odds were in Shih’s favor as her encounter with Yi turned her life into something bigger. She agreed to marry him under certain conditions, including power in his fleet and equal share in his loot.
Apparently, Yi agreed to Shih’s conditions and she was given the honorific Zheng Yi Sao (meaning “wife of Zheng Yi”). Soon, their fleet increased from 200 to 1,800 ships, and she arranged them into the colors Red (lead), Black, Blue, Green, Yellow and White.
Their glory as a couple ended in 1807 when Yi passed away during the Tay Son Rebellion in Vietnam. By this time, their armada had an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 pirates. Shih also garnered the support of Yi’s second in command, Chang Pao, who also happened to be Shih and Yi’s forcibly adopted son and whom she later married. With Pao’s backing, Yi took command of the fleet and began a whole new era of piracy.
Shih was known to be very strategic, devising a system in which loot had to be registered prior to distribution. She also maintained that the ship responsible for a successful raid got 20% of the loot — the remainder was shared with the rest of the fleet. Violence was practiced throughout their captures.
She became known as “The Terror of South China” and became the unofficial Guangdong Pirate Confederation‘s commander, feared by the Chinese, Portuguese and British navies — all of whom lost ships to her. Anyone who resisted her would have their feet nailed to the deck of her ship and beaten.
Yet for many people, Shih is most known for her rules on imprisoned women. “Ugly” captives were set free, unharmed, while “beautiful” ones were kept as wives or concubines of her pirates. However, her men had to remain faithful and take care of their companions or face punishment, the harshest being beheading.
When the Qing emperor found Shih practically unbeatable, he made an agreement to give amnesty to anyone wishing to stop pirating and return to the mainland, according to ATI. Shih ended her reign voluntarily, returned to Guangdong Province and opened her very own gambling house. She died in 1844 at the age of 69.