The Pirate Queen of the South China Seas

by K.P. Kulski

A couple weeks ago, E.J. and taught a class on Writing Realistic Women in Historical Settings for In Your Write Mind, a writer’s conference annually hosted by Seton Hill University. During the lecture, I touched on the idea that women of lower classes could find opportunities for power through communities of crime such as piracy and robbery

This got me thinking about how living and operating in communities that were outside and/or in direct conflict with the larger social norm, women could more easily step into roles that would have been improbable within their societies. Please note that I will be discussing these groups and concepts in a historical context, but certainly many of the forthcoming statements may or may not apply to modern day.

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Piracy in the South China Sea ( Image © adventuresinhistoryland.com)

While these communities of crime were brutal and unforgiving, structural norms for the sake of order or blind adherence to traditional roles did not hold the level of importance it did in larger society. Organized crime was a state of flux with the strongest and most shrewd rising to power and then ultimately falling in favor someone else. Social power structures are therefore not stationary, if anything, quite the opposite. By nature, crime violates social norms through violation of law. Further, these communities tended to be focused on factors such as cunning and clear success for the basis of authority with little regard for things such as gender or class.

The history of piracy and general seafaring has many examples of women who found escape from social restraints on their gender and chose to live a life on the high seas. It is not surprising, since in many ways, a ship alone upon the ocean can be its own extremely isolated and unique society with varied power structures. Through cunning, effective leadership and delivery of victory (therefore money), individuals from many backgrounds could find themselves in positions of power. Neither class nor gender was necessarily an obstacle.

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(Image © allthatsinteresting.com)

It should be no further surprise that one of the most powerful pirates in history was a woman. At her height of power, she commanded a fleet that numbered 70,000 pirates and 1,200 vessels.[1] A “pirate confederation whose members outnumbered by two times the total forces involved in the Spanish Armada.”[2] This woman, born as Shi Yang would later be infamously known as Cheng I Sao “the wife of Cheng I” or Ching Shih “widow of Zheng.” She was not high-born, in fact she was a commoner who originally worked as a prostitute in the Canton region before her meteoric rise to pirate power. Her strength and immense supremacy over not only a single ship but several fleets, justly conjures the image of a pirate queen. If not anything else, Ching Shih was exactly that, a position achieved through her unparalleled capabilities of strategy and leadership.

Her rise to power began first as an exceedingly effective union between her and the pirate Cheng I through marriage. Historians are not completely sure of the basis of the marriage, if it was motivated by love, lust, business alliance or some combination of all three. But Ching Shih put her political and strategic skills to work alongside Cheng I whose pirate status (in fact he was from a family of pirates) legitimized her own status within the pirate world. While together, they successfully unified and strengthened the pirates of the South China coast by 1804. Historian Dian Murray points out that it appears Ching Shih elevated and launched the careers of her spouses, a role reversal from larger society, that it was Ching Shih who provided the impetus and skills for success.

When Cheng I died suddenly in 1807, Ching Shih maneuvered herself as sole leader of the massive fleets they had built together. She did this through identifying how to further legitimatize her claim (something already strong), created relationships with tributary pirate gang leaders and even used religious beliefs to her advantage.

But she was much more than a cunning contender to power, Ching Shih was a highly effective leader. Taking power is one thing, but consistently delivering successful operations was vital to maintaining it. She did just that, even recognizing that robbing ships alone could not sustain operations. Ching Shih took control of vital salt shipments and organized extensive networks that sold vouchers to local fishermen and other seafarers that exempted them from attack. She did all this through strict control with draconian punishments that included immediate decapitation for anyone who tried to usurp or disobey commands.[3] She maintained an interest in the proper treatment of women that extended to female captives establishing a punishment that included death for pirates who raped women, captive or not.[4]

Ching Shih next married the adopted son of her deceased husband. This union was as much a partnership of ambition with Ching Shih in the driver’s seat of the fleet. She created the conditions for her new husband Chang Pao to gain power within the fleet as the commander of a subset of the organization, known as the Red Flag Squadron.

What’s most interesting to me is that Ching Shih did not seem to identify herself solely as a pirate, instead she held a supreme confidence in her abilities and knew when to roll the dice and when to bow out of the game. She was flexible and took to new roles fluidly and with equal skill. Eventually she left the pirating world, obtained a position of governmental authority for her husband and set herself and her family up nicely in Canton.

Ching Shih never lived within the constraints of society and never let anyone define her. It was a remarkable outlook. When she died at the age of 69, she left behind a well-lived life where she not only refused to take “no” for an answer, but never seemed to recognize that anyone had the right to refuse her in the first place.

Featured image credit: Still from the 2003 movie, Singing Behind Screens

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Endnotes

[1] Dian Murray. “One Woman’s Rise to Power: Cheng I’s Wife and the Pirates,” Historical Reflections 8, no. 3. (1981): 3.

[2] Murray, “Cheng I’s Wife and the Pirates,” 3.

[3] Murray, 6.

[4] Murray, 6.

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