Ching Shih: Hong Kong’s Pirate Queen that Terrorized the South China Sea


Ching Shih was The Most Successful Pirate in World History

It’s a crime that most people have never heard of Ching Shih (鄭氏), also known as Zheng Yi Sao (鄭一嫂), the prostitute-turned-pirate-queen, who dominated the South China Sea during the early 19th century.

During her rise to power, she was able to unite Guangdong’s nefarious warring pirate clans under one banner and set up a strict set of codes that her men abided by to the letter. At the height of her power, she amassed an army of up to 1,800 pirate ships and an estimated 80,000 men. For context, Blackbeard commanded four ships and 300 men at his zenith.

Her pirate army was such a force to be reckoned with that they were even able to win battles against the British, Portuguese and Qing government, who were all desperate to stop Ching Shih and her men from wreaking havoc out on the high seas.

So, how did a woman who was forced to work on a floating brothel become the world’s most powerful pirate lord in just a few short years?

Here’s the incredible story of Ching Shih, Hong Kong’s uncelebrated pirate queen.

A Quick Timeline of Ching Shih’s Life

  • 1775: Ching Shih was born as Shi Yang in Guangdong province, China
  • Early Life: She was forced into sex work on a floating brothel at a young age to supplement the family income
  • 1801: She married the notorious pirate commander Zheng Yi, who was impressed by her beauty and business savvy nature
  • 1805: Zheng Yi, with Ching Shih by his side, manages to unite all the six warring pirate clans of the South China Sea into a unified pirate confederation
  • 1805: The pirate confederation make Lantau Island in Hong Kong their base of operations
  • 1805 Onwards: The unified pirates stormed and pilfered Qing and foreign ships in waters ranging from Hong Kong to Vietnam.
  • 1807: After the death of her husband, Ching Shih took control of his pirate confederation with the support of his adopted son Cheung Po Tsai, with whom she entered into a relationship and later married
  • 1807 Onward: Ching Shih builds close relations with the leaders of the six pirate clans and grow the pirate confederation’s numbers considerably (more than 1800 junks and 80,000 men)
  • 1808 and 1809: Ching Shih decimates Qing Dynasty naval fleets
  • 1809: Battle of Tung Chung Bay sees Ching Shih’s pirates thwart the efforts of a joint Sino-Portuguese navy blockade
  • 1809: East India Company and Ching Shih’s Pirate Confederacy agree to a truce so British ships and goods could travel by sea unharmed
  • 1809-1810: Battle of the Tiger’s Mouth where Ching Shih’s Red Flag Fleet suffered a series of defeats against the Portuguese navy
  • 1810: Ching Shih accepts the Chinese government's amnesty offer and retires from piracy
  • 1844: Ching Shih dies at the age of 69 after building a gambling empire in Macau

Ching Shih’s Tragic Childhood (1775-1801)

Ching Shih, also known as Zheng Yi Sao, was born in 1775 in China’s Guangdong province, an extremely poverty-ridden region at the time. When she was only thirteen, she was forced into sex work to supplement the family income and worked in a floating brothel, also known as a flower boat (花船).

Instead of being overwhelmed by her tragic circumstances, Ching Shih was able to make the best of what opportunities were presented to her. Ching Shih quickly became famous in the area due to her beauty, poise, wit, and hospitality, which attracted several high-profile customers such as royal courtiers.

Ching Shih’s Marriage to Pirate Lord Zheng Yi (1801)

It was during her time at the brothel that she was noticed by one of Guangdong’s most infamous pirate lords, Zheng Yi. Born into a family of pirates, Zheng Yi had been busy fighting on behalf of the Vietnamese Tây Sơn Dynasty in the Tây Sơn wars against Qing China.

It’s said that Zheng Yi was impressed by 26-year-old Ching Shih’s beauty and business-savvy nature, which was what led him to marry her. She asserted that the marriage would only go ahead if Zheng Yi offered her 50% of his earnings and partial control of his pirate fleet.

After agreeing to the deal, Ching Shih was often called Zheng Yi Sao, meaning wife of Zheng Yi.

Together, they had two children, Zheng Yingshi (鄭英石), who was born in 1803, and Zheng Xiongshi (鄭雄石), who was born in 1807. They also adopted Tseung Po Tsai, who Zheng Yi had kidnapped and forced into a life of piracy from a young age.

Uniting of Guangdong’s Fractured Pirate Armies (1805)

In the next few years, Zheng Yi and Ching Shih began to consolidate power by forging powerful alliances with various fractured pirate gangs. In total, there were six major gangs that the duo managed to woo over into joining their new pirate confederation.

Instead of attacking one another, the pirates turned into a major naval force with at around 600 ships and up to 40,000 men.

It is believed that Zheng Yi “was the ‘unifier and patriarch’ while Ching Shih was the ‘consolidator and organizer”.

Each of the six major pirate gangs still ran their own fleets, which were distinguished by different flag colors. These fleets consisted of Zheng Yi’s Red Flag Fleet, Guo Podai’s Black Flag Fleet, Liang Bao’s White Flag Fleet, Jin Guyang’s Green Flag Fleet, Wu Shi'er’s Blue Flag Fleet and Wu Zhiqing’s Yellow Flag Fleet.

Of all these fleets, Zheng Yi’s Red Flag fleet was the largest with 200 of the 600 total ships.

A New Era of Piracy Spreads from Lantau Island, Hong Kong (1805)

Once the pirates started working together, “The Qing naval force was inadequate in number; its fighting power and defence capacity were woefully insufficient.”

By establishing their primary base of operations on Lantau Island in Hong Kong, the pirates were able to quickly mobilize and raid ships from Hong Kong to Vietnam, including foreign vessels and large merchant ships transporting valuable cargo to and from China and Malaysia.

The pirates had three main sources of income.

  1. Cargo that the pirates targeted included gold, silver, silk, spices, porcelain, tea and even cotton. Pilfered goods were sold to merchants along the Guangdong coast for a hefty profit.
  2. When foreign ships were raided, imprisoned sailors were also often sold back to their respective nations via ransom.
  3. While locals towns were initially spared from attack, eventually the pirates also looted or attacked them to encourage the payment of protection money.

A new age of piracy had begun in the South China Sea!

Zheng Yi’s Death Marks Ching Shih’s Rise to Power (1807)

In November 1807, Zheng Yi died in a typhoon off the coast of Vietnam.

This marked the rise of Ching Shih, who was made leader of the pirate confederation. Around this time, Ching Shih entered into a relationship with Cheung Po Tsai, who was her adopted son.

Ching Shih granted control of the Red Fleet to Tseung Po Tsai while she concentrated on building up the forces of the pirate confederation. With the population in Guangdong growing rapidly and agriculture unable to keep up with demand, many were keen for an escape from poverty. Many who joined Ching Shih and her pirates “were local sailors or fishermen who had turned to piracy out of financial desperation.”

Her fleet soon ballooned into “80,000 pirates under Ching Shih’s command, and some 1,000 large junks and 800 smaller junks and rowboats.”

Her ships were formidable, too.

Of her war junks, the largest weighed almost 600 tons, mounted up to 30 guns, and carried 300–400 men.

This growing success meant that the pirate clans and their leaders were keen to remain as a single, powerful alliance.

Ching Shih’s Universal Set of Pirate Rules (1807)

In order to keep control of her massive group of pirates, Ching Chih enforced a common set of codes that she expected to be enforced down to the letter. Some of these rules, as stated by historian David Cordingly in his book Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates, included:

  • A pirate may not desert, go on leave or go on shore without permission. The punishment for breaking this rule was to have one's ears slit. The punishment for repeat offenders was execution.
  • If plundered goods were concealed from other pirates, offenders would be whipped. The punishment for repeat offenders was execution.
  • An individual ship that captures a cargo may keep one-fifth, the rest is to be added to the general prize-fund of the whole fleet.
  • The rape of a female captive was punishable by death.
  • A pirate may buy a captured woman for his wife for $40 (if she is not to be held for ransom).
  • Townsfolk must be paid for their provisions (clearly not always applied).

Five Fighting Tactics Used by the Pirate Confederation

While many of the military tactics used by the pirate confederation were rather primitive, they were effective in getting the job done.

  1. From a distance, prior to boarding a ship, they used long poles (up to 30 feet in length) with machetes attached to the end of them to inspire fear and terror. They also used an intriguing type of rifle called a jingal, which was 8-feet long and shot out small scrap metal balls.
  2. The pirates would set old ships on fire and guide them toward the enemy to cause tight formations to scatter.
  3. By combining gunpowder and gin into earth pots, primitive grenades were built for close quarters combat
  4. By posing as gentry, the pirates put in requests for additional cannons and tricked the Qing government into providing them for free.
  5. The pirates also directly attacked Qing naval bases, stealing ships and weaponry. They would sometimes slaughter Qing troops, too, crippling and demoralizing government forces.

Allying with the British (1809)

A this point in history, the British had major financial incentives in China, especially in the Guangdong region, where they prized China’s porcelain, silk and tea. The British also found that they could trade opium in the region for a hefty profit.

Of course, the Qing government weren’t too keen on this particular trade practice and banned the import of opium, while “China’s high import taxes and almost impermeable borders duties frustrated European chartered trading companies.”

To circumnavigate these tumultuous trade waters, the British negotiated with Ching Shih and her pirates and even “encouraged the coastal pirates to undermine the Qing state in order to advance their own financial agenda.”

The East India Company, which was an incredibly powerful entity at the time, found it favorable to build ties with the pirates. Both parties exchanged gifts and pleasantries before agreeing to leave each other well alone. In the end, Ching Shih's lover and second-in-command, Tseung Po Tsai, agreed to leave ships carrying British cargo unharmed in the South China Sea.

Major Battles Won and Lost By Ching Shih’s Pirates

  • July 1808: Pirate Confederation decimates a Qing government fleet led by Lin Guoliang (林國良). In total, 35 ships near Mazhou Island were sunk.
  • October 1808: Pirate Confederation defeated lieutenant-colonel (參將) Lin Fa (林發) near present-day Weiyuan Island.
  • March 1809: Ching Shih responds to a call for aid from a smaller pirate fleet and defeated Provincial Commander Sun Quanmou (孫全謀) near Dawanshan Islands, Zhuhai. 100 government ships were destroyed.
  • July 1809: The Qing Navy destroys the White Flag Fleet and kills its commander, Liang Bao. Qing forces lost 25 ships in the battle.
  • August 1809: Pirate Confederation goes on multiple large-scale raids on towns, defeating Qing government forces along the way.
  • September 1809: After heavy artillery combat, the Portuguese navy severely damages the Red Flag Fleet and causes them to scatter from near Macau.
  • October 1809: Pirate Confederation defeat Sun Quanmou again near Shawan.
  • November 1809: Ching Shih and Tseung Po Tsai anchored in Tung Chung for repairs and ambushed by Portuguese fleet in the Battle of Tung Chung Bay. After a stalemate, Sun Quanmou and Portuguese forces sent 46 fire ships toward the pirates to rout them. The pirates extinguish the flames and turn several fire ships back toward the Qing and Portuguese forces before escaping Tung Chung.
  • January 1810: In Lantau Island, the Portuguese Navy win a decisive victory over the pirates due to their superior firepower. The pirates flee to the Hiang San River, where Portuguese ships couldn't enter due to their larger size.

The Pirates Begin to Infight and Eventually Accept Amnesty (1810)

With the British now secret allies and the Sino-Portuguese alliance unable to destroy the confederacy, the Qing government began to gravitate towards conciliation.

Guo Podai, leader of the Black Flag Fleet (second largest fleet), also turned against Ching Shih in a 1810 betrayal that saw him exonerated of all crimes as a pirate. He joined the Qing Navy, which was a major blow to the morale of the pirates.

Realizing that this may be the ideal opportunity to end piracy once and for all, the Qing government began to offer pardons to all pirates that surrendered. Given how tough life as a pirate could be, with men often resorting to eating boiled rice and caterpillars to survive rough periods, “bandits were attracted to the idea of a quiet retirement with the loot they had amassed.”

With a large chunk of their confederation having surrendered, Ching Shih officially retired from piracy On 20th April, 1810. “The Chinese government granted amnesty to 17,318 pirates who simultaneously presented the Emperor with 226 junks, 1,315 cannons, and 2,798 assorted weapons.”

Tseung Po Tsai and Ching Shih were also given a large undisclosed sum of money, could keep 20 of their junks as a protection fleet and were even allowed to get married, which was pretty much unheard of, since it was illegal for a woman to remarry at the time – even if the woman was a widow.

Ching Shih Becomes a Gambling Magnate in Macau (1822)

After Tseung Po Tsai’s death in 1822, Ching Shih set up a gambling house in Macau that was also likely a brothel. She amassed an even larger fortune through her latest venture and even dappled in the salt trade. She eventually died at the age of 69, surrounded by friends and family, leaving behind a truly remarkable legacy as the greatest pirate leader the world has ever known.