Ching Shih (1775–1844) (simplified Chinese: 郑氏; traditional Chinese: 鄭氏; pinyin: Zhèng Shì; Cantonese: Jihng Sih; “widow of Zheng”), also known as Cheng I Sao (simplified Chinese: 郑一嫂; traditional Chinese: 鄭一嫂; pinyin: Zhèng Yī Sǎo; Cantonese: Jihng Yāt Sóu “wife of Zheng Yi”), was a prominent pirate in Qing China who terrorized the South China Sea in the early 19th century. She commanded over 300 junks manned by 20,000-40,000 pirates. Another estimate has Cheng’s fleet at 1,800 and crew at about 80,000— men, women, and even children. She challenged the empires of the time, such as the British, Portuguese and the Qing dynasty. Undefeated, she would become one of China and Asia’s strongest pirates, and one of world history’s most powerful pirates. She was also one of the few pirate captains to retire from piracy.
Jihng Sih is featured in numerous books, novels, video games and films.
She was born Sehk Heonggu (Chinese: 石香姑; Jyutping: sek6 heong1 gu1, IPA: [sɛk˨ hœŋ˥ ku˥]) in 1775 in Guangdong. She was a Cantonese prostitute who worked in a small brothel in Guangzhou, but was captured by pirates. In 1801, she married Jihng Yāt, a notorious pirate. The name she is best remembered by simply means “Jihng’s widow”.
Marriage to Jihng Yāt
Jihng Yāt belonged to a family of successful pirates who traced their criminal origins back to the mid-seventeenth century. Following his marriage to Jihng Sih, “who participated fully in her husband’s piracy,” Jihng Yāt used military assertion and his reputation to gather a coalition of competing Cantonese pirate fleets into an alliance. By 1804, this coalition was a formidable force, and one of the most powerful pirate fleets in all of China; by this time they were known as the Red Flag Fleet.
Ascension to leadership
On 16 November 1807, Jihng Yāt died in Vietnam. Jihng Sih immediately began maneuvering her way into his leadership position. She started to cultivate personal relationships to get rivals to recognize her status and solidify her authority. In order to stop her rivals before open conflict erupted, she sought the support of the most powerful members of her husband’s family: his nephew Cheng Pao-yang and his cousin’s son Cheng Ch’i. Then she drew on the coalition formed by her husband by building upon some of the fleet captains’ existing loyalties to her husband and making herself essential to the remaining captains.
Since Jihng Sih would have such a large force at her command, she knew she needed someone to assist her in managing the Red Flag Fleet’s day-to-day operations, but remain loyal to her and be accepted by the low-level pirates. She believed there was only one man for the job, Cheung Po Tsai.
Relationship with Cheung Po Tsai
Cheung Po Tsai was the son of a fisherman and had been impressed into piracy at age 15, when he was captured by Jihng Yāt. Cheung rose rapidly through the ranks and was eventually adopted by Zheng Yi. Jihng Yāt was known to engage in same-sex relationships so the adoption was a cover for him to have Cheung as his male lover.
As soon as Jihng Sih chose Cheung, she acted quickly to solidify the partnership with intimacy. The two became lovers within weeks and eventually married.Jihng Sih gave birth to a son at the age of 38 with Cheung. Cheung Po Tsai died at 36, causes unknown.
Once she held the fleet’s leadership position, Jihng Sih started the task of uniting the fleet by issuing a code of laws. (The Neumann translation of The History of Pirates Who Infested the China Sea claims that it was Cheung Pao Tsai that issued the code. Yuan Yung-lun says that Cheung issued his own code of three regulations, called san-t’iao, for his own fleet, but these are not known to exist in a written form.The code was very strict and according to Richard Glasspoole, strictly enforced.
First, anyone giving their own orders (ones that did not come down from Jihng Sih) or disobeying those of a superior were beheaded on the spot.
Second, no one was to steal from the public fund or any villagers that supplied the pirates.
Third, all goods taken as booty had to be presented for group inspection. The booty was registered by a purser and then distributed by the fleet leader. The original seizer received twenty percent and the rest was placed into the public fund.
Fourth, actual money was turned over to the squadron leader, who only gave a small amount back to the seizer, so the rest could be used to purchase supplies for unsuccessful ships. According to Philip Maughan, the punishment for a first-time offense of withholding booty was severe whipping of the back. Large amounts of withheld treasure or subsequent offenses carried the death penalty.
Jihng Sih’s code had special rules for female captives. Standard practice was to release women, but J.L. Turner witnessed differently. Usually the pirates made their most beautiful captives their concubines or wives. If a pirate took a wife he had to be faithful to her. The ones deemed unattractive were released and any remaining were ransomed. Pirates that raped female captives were put to death, but if pirates had consensual sex with captives, the pirate was beheaded and the woman he was with had cannonballs attached to her legs and was chucked off the side of the boat.
Violations of other parts of the code were punished with flogging, clapping in irons, or quartering. Deserters or those who had left without official permission had their ears chopped off, and then were paraded around their squadron. Glasspoole concluded that the code “gave rise to a force that was intrepid in attack, desperate in defense, and unyielding even when outnumbered.”
The fleet under her command established hegemony over many coastal villages, in some cases even imposing levies and taxes on settlements. According to Robert Antony, Jihng Sih “robbed towns, markets, and villages, from Macau to Canton.” In 1806 a British officer reported on the terrible fate of those who resisted Jihng Sih’s pirates; the pirates nailed an enemy’s feet to the deck and then beat him senseless.Contemporary reports from the British admiralty called her “The Terror of South China”.
The 1932 book The History of Piracy by Philip Gosse (grandson of the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse) claims Jihng Sih was an opium smuggler.
The Chinese navy lost sixty-three ships in the attacks. Even the hired navies of Portugal and Britain could not defeat Jihng Sih. Finding it hopeless to defeat her, in 1810, amnesty was offered to all pirates. Jihng Sih and Chang Pao wanted to take advantage of the amnesty but negotiation at sea between Cheung Pao Tsai and the government official Zhang Bai Ling (张百龄）hit a deadlock. Besides the fate of the loot, one sticking point was the government’s demand that the pirates had to kneel before them. For the pirates to consider kneeling in front of their previous defeated foe was too much to accept.
Jihng Sih took 17 illiterate women and children and walked into Zhang Bai Ling’s office in Canton unarmed and began negotiation. She got everything she wanted including keeping all her loot. The kneeling deadlock was solved by Zhang Bai Ling acting as a witness at the marriage of Cheung Po Tsai and Jihng Sih (officially, Cheung Po Tsai was still Jihng Sih’s son, so a government blessing was needed). The two had to kneel to thank him. That was accepted as part of the act of surrender.
She ended her career that year with all her loot. Cheung was given an official position in the government. After he died suddenly, Jihng Sih went back to Canton with her young son and opened a gambling house.
She died in 1844, at the age of 69.
A semi-fictionalized account of Ching Shih’s piracy appeared in Jorge Luis Borges’s short story The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate (part of A Universal History of Infamy, first edited in 1954), where she is described as “a lady pirate who operated in Asian waters, all the way from the Yellow Sea to the rivers of the Annam coast”, and who, after surrendering to the imperial forces, is pardoned and allowed to live the rest of her life as an opium smuggler. Borges acknowledged the 1932 book The History of Piracy, by Philip Gosse (grandson of the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse), as the source of the tale.
In 2003, Ermanno Olmi made a film, Singing Behind Screens, loosely based on Borges’s retelling, though rights problems prevented the Argentine writer from appearing in the credits.
Afterlife, a 2006 OEL graphic novel, depicts Jihng Sih as a guardian who fights demons to protect the denizens of the underworld.
In The Wake of the Lorelei Lee, book eight of L.A. Meyer’s Bloody Jack series, Jacky is captured by Jihng Sih and so impresses her that the pirate bestows her with a tattoo of a dragon on the back of her neck to indicate she is under Shih’s protection.
In 2007, in the third film in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Jihng Sih was portrayed as the powerful pirate Mistress Ching.
Puppetmongers Theatre of Toronto, Canada, mounted two different productions based on Jihng Sih’s life. The first was a co-production with the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, directed by Jon Ludwig in 2000, and the second version, directed by Mark Cassidy played at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre Extra Space in 2002.
In the 1990s, the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, NV had a Chinese restaurant named after Jihng Sih (Madame Ching’s). It is no longer in business.
Red Flag, a limited series which centers on Jihng Sih, starring Maggie Q and Francois Arnaud, is scheduled to start filming in the fall of 2014 in Malaysia.