Ching Shih – From Prostitute to Pirate

Part 2

Zheng Yi and Madame Shih ruled through a “Confederation” which meant that there was not one pirate captain that dominated the other pirates but one could “lead” them on the condition that other pirates agreed and collectively they were so fearsome that they were known as “The wasps of the Sea”

For their honeymoon, the couple sailed to Annam (present day Vietnam) to fight in the ongoing Tay Son rebellion which was led by three brothers to end the Le and Trinh dynasties (1771 to 1801). The call to arms of the Tay Son was “seize the property of the rich and distribute it to the poor.” An Eastern version of Robin Hood if you like. It is still debatable how much loot was redistributed to the poor


In each village the Tay Son seized, oppressive landlords and scholar-officials were punished and their property redistributed to the needy. The Tay Son also abolished taxes, burned the tax offices and the land registers, freed prisoners from local jails, and distributed the food from storehouses to the hungry. As the rebellion gathered momentum, it gained the support of army deserters, merchants, scholars, local officials, and bonzes and that where our pirates fitted in

The pirates did not limit their thievery to the sea as they regularly went inland. Along with booty and fresh produce, the pirate crew took villagers as slaves and deckhands and by 1806, almost every Chinese vessel passing along the coast paid protection money to the pirate. Anybody whose family owns a deli in New York or Sicily can attest to the financial burden this placed on any establishment when protection money has to be paid. The story goes that the British also in fact eventually paid the Pirates to leave their ships unharmed so it was mostly the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch ships and the Chinese Imperial fleet who took a beating on a regular basis. If a fishing boat that had a pass was plundered, the squadron leader would have to restore the boat and pay the equivalent of $500 in damages


A couple of years later, the Chinese Qing Emperor, Jiaqing tried to curb this excessive pirating and smuggling of Opium, iron and rice by offering Cheng Yi the title of the “Golden Dragon of the Imperial Staff,” which would have effectively promoted him to the ranks of prince and thus by marriage, the Madame would have become a Princess. At that stage, the emperor was also desperately trying to curb the outflow of Chinese silver into the hands of smugglers who were flooding the Chinese market with opium brought in from British India. (And to think the British are now at war with Afghanistan about cheap Heroin.) The British used the profits from the sale of the opium to purchase Chinese luxury goods such as porcelain, silk, and tea which was in high demand back home

 [On a side note: A couple of kilogrammes of Opium first arrived in China during the Tang dynasty (618–907) via Turkish and Arab traders and was originally used as a medicinal herb. This escalated to 76,000 kg in 1773, loaded and shipped in over two thousand chests by the British, other private traders and the Red Flag pirates. The gold and silver the traders received from those sales were then turned over to the East India Company, which was a British joint-stock company originally established to pursue trade with the East Indies but ended up trading mainly with the Indian subcontinent and Qing Dynasty in China. The company also ruled the beginnings of the British Empire in India but due to financial problems and bad management, the company was dissolved in 1874 even though the British stayed in India until finally being (rightfully so) kicked out in the late 1940’s]


Levels of opium addiction grew so high in China during this time that it began to affect the imperial troops and the official classes to the point where Government officials (like over all the world) were no longer conducting the country’s business in an efficient and effective manner. The efforts of the Qing dynasty to enforce the opium restrictions resulted in two armed conflicts between China and the West, known as the Opium Wars, both of which China lost and resulted in various measures that contributed to the decline of the Qing Dynasty

The pirates also lessened seasickness, scurvy and sunburn and the harshness of their lives with opium and many were incorrigible gamblers, so high and so engrossed in their games that even in the midst of battle not even the violent death of a player beside them would interrupt their game


Further headache for the Emperor was that during this period he was also trying to quell the internal White Lotus Rebellion, which was initiated by the Buddhists as a tax protest; and the Miao rebellion which arose from tensions between local populations and Han Chinese immigrants, as well as from misrule, official abuse, extortion, over-taxation and land-grabbing. So by offering the Pirate the honourable title “Golden Dragon of the Imperial Staff”, he erroneously thought that at least one problem would be solved

In exchange for the title “Golden Dragon of the Imperial Staff,” Cheng Yi and the rest of the Privateers had to stay at home and do whatever it is retrenched pirates do. Drink, fight, teach parrots to talk and tell tall tales of their adventures but understandably, this life quickly became boring and all of them took back to the sea where they belonged

But that did not last long. On November 16, 1807, Zhèng Yi found himself caught in a typhoon and didn’t manage to survive the ordeal and he “fell overboard and drowned” during the storm. Unless his ship actually sank it would be peculiar for a pirate to just “fall overboard and drown”. Surely a more intriguing conspiracy must have been afoot between the dead man’s wife and his lover because it was not long after that the grieving widow (clearly no longer so) married her dead husbands lover and her adopted son

So how would this one woman unite them altogether after the death of the mighty pirate as they were all starting to scatter to the four corners? She offered them a dare stating, “Under the leadership of a man you have all chosen to flee. Let’s see how you prove yourselves under the hand of a woman” and as none of them wanted to appear weak, they all stayed with her even though her reign and methods of enforcing discipline starting becoming somewhat heavy handed such as beheadings and nailing peoples feet to the ship deck

And how did she keep them in line? Discipline. Strict Discipline

  • If anybody was caught issuing an order that did not come from her – beheaded
  • Not obeying an order – beheaded
  • Sexual assault was prohibited. If caught – beheaded
  • Deserters had their ears cut off and were paraded around the fleet

In 1809, the pirates captured a young British officer in the East India Company by the name of Richard Glasspoole who was ransomed for £1,915 pounds sterling, two chests of gunpowder, two bales of cloth, two chests of opium, and a telescope. During his captivity he was taken along and witnessed the plundering of many villages along the river and the extraction of the levies

Upon his release eleven week later he wrote a book chronicling his adventure “Mr. Glasspoole and the Chinese Pirates”

One of the more sobering entries reads as follows, “October the 1st, the fleet weighed in the night, dropped by the tide up the river, and anchored very quietly before a town surrounded by a thick wood. Early in the morning the ladrones (a name given to the pirates by the Portuguese) assembled in row-boats and landed, then gave a shout, and rushed into the town sword in hand. The inhabitants fled to the adjacent hills, in numbers apparently superior to the ladrones. It was a most melancholy sight to see the women in tears, clasping their infants in their arms, and imploring mercy for them from those brutal robbers. The old and the sick who were unable to fly or make resistance, were either made prisoners or most inhumanly butchered; the boats continued passing and repassing from the junks to the shore in quick succession, laden with booty, and the men besmeared with blood. Two hundred and fifty women and several children were made prisoners and sent on board different vessels. They were unable to escape with the men, owing to the abominable custom of cramping their feet (foot binding). Twenty of these poor women were put on board the vessel I was in; they were hauled on board by the hair and treated in a most savage manner


Why would anybody assume that the treatment of villagers and prisoners would be any different by the European or Barbary Pirates, yet they continue to be glamourized in novels and on film

End part 2

2 thoughts on “Ching Shih – From Prostitute to Pirate

  1. Fantastic history lesson! Are you a history teacher? I noticed you don’t have an ABOUT page. Also, I normally like following people via Email, because the normal Follow goes into my reader, but sometimes I miss good posts, because the Reader gets full. With the Email Follow I am alerted that you wrote a post and the title of the post. You have a wonderful Blog, enjoy reading about history and you are very thorough.


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