10 Facts About Ching Shih, The Most Powerful Female Pirate That Ever Lived

The high seas weren't just ruled by male rogues; in fact, there were always plenty of female pirates who reigned supreme in oceans around the world. So, who were the most notorious sea queens of history? One of the baddest was certainly Ching Shih, AKA Cheng I Sao, one of the most successful women pirates to ever pirate.

One of the fiercest pirates from China to ever set sail, Ching Shih began life as a sex worker and negotiated her own marriage to a pirate king. After his passing, she ruled over 70,000 sailors, creating a ruthless band of aquatic warriors. 

Read on for some fascinating facts about Ching Shih, queen of the Chinese pirates.


  • She Was Once A Sex Worker On A Floating Brothel

    She Was Once A Sex Worker On A Floating Brothel
    Photo: Ralph Repo / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

    Ching Shih didn't start out her career as a pirate; in fact, she began it in a brothel. Called a "flower boat," or floating house of prostitution, the brothel-ship where she worked offered sex galore on the South China Sea. These were also called huafang, and they were places where customers feasted and were treated to theatrical performances before doing the deed.

    Let's just hope nobody got seasick while working.

  • She Got Joint Control Over The Pirate Fleet When She Married Pirate King Cheng

    She Got Joint Control Over The Pirate Fleet When She Married Pirate King Cheng
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Ching Shih wasn't a sex worker for long before she married a pirate lord named Cheng I in 1801. The conditions of her marriage? She'd have joint control over his pirate fleet. 

    Her lifestyle quickly became that of sea-going royalty. Four years after her wedding, the pair already controlled most of the waters in southern China. But just two years later, in 1807, Cheng I kicked the bucket, leaving his maritime empire up for grabs... and our favorite pirate queen was not about to let anyone else take over what was rightfully hers.

  • Ching Shih's Forces Numbered Around 70,000

    Ching Shih's Forces Numbered Around 70,000
    Photo: Anonymous / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    After her husband's passing, she controlled numerous fleets, called the Red Flag Squadron. 

    By making allegiances with powerful members of her husband’s crew and appointing a loyal commander of the squadron, this pirate queen commanded up to 70,000 men, including 400 ships.

  • Ching Shih Took Her Husband's Adopted Son As Her Own Lover

    Ching Shih Took Her Husband's Adopted Son As Her Own Lover
    Photo: 袁永綸 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    After her husband passed, Ching Shih eventually moved on and took a lover: her adopted son with her late spouse! This son was the second-in-command of the pirate fleet. According to Dian Murray’s article, Cheng I kidnaped the boy, Chang Pao, when he was a teen and initiated him into the pirate gang "by means of a homosexual liaison."

    The couple eventually adopted Chang Pao and raised him as a member of their family. After Cheng I passed, Ching Shih started a sexual relationship with the 21-year-old Chang Pao. They later married.

  • Ching Shih Created A Law Code Designed To Keep Her Pirates Tough But Honest

    Ching Shih Created A Law Code Designed To Keep Her Pirates Tough But Honest
    Photo: PHG / Wikipedia / Public Domain

    With the help of her adopted son/lover, Ching Shih created a legal system for her tens of thousands of followers to abide by. These laws regulated the sharing of booty between pirates and put forth a penal code. This penal code was reportedly quite harsh. If you disobeyed a supervisor or took booty from the pirates' pooled treasure stash, you could be executed. All booty had to be registered and inspected before a pirate could keep some of it; the guy who'd captured it typically got about 20% of what he took. Perhaps most interestingly, Ching Shih issued a command aimed to protect her female captives against rape.

    According to Richard Glasspoole, a British officer of the East India Company that she captured along with seven other British sailors in 1809, "the laws of discipline and civil government are equally enforced on board his (the chief’s) junk, and any transgressions from them immediately punished."

     

  • Ching Shih Ruled Her Own Mini-State

    Ching Shih Ruled Her Own Mini-State
    Photo: Dr. Edward Hodges Cree / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Eighteenth- and 19th-century pirate gangs in China weren't only outlaws; they also formed their own political entities, sort of mini-states, in contrast to weakened political structures on the mainland. They were culturally diverse, had their own law codes, and followed their own rulers.

    But these pirate confederations weren't innocent: they captured rival territory and vessels, took others' cargo, and set up protection rackets.