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The terrifying tale of infamous Caribbean pirates like Blackbeard or Henry Morgan who nonetheless commanded more the 10 ships and hundreds of men fell pale next to an emerging female pirate at the South China Sea. Termed as history’s most successful pirate, Madame Zheng operated at a time when there was barely any female rising to power. She commanded more than 80,000 outlaws and over 1800 pirate ships.

Risen during the Qing Dynasty, Madam Zheng’s tale continues to inspire thousands of women in China.

At the dawn of the 19th century, an ex-prostitute was paving way for one of the most notorious pirates’ armies- The Red Flag Fleet. But before this Ching Shih was a prostitute at a floating brothel in Canton city. Ching Shih was born around 1775 in Xinhui, Guangdong. She initially worked on a floating Tanka brothel in Guangdong. Yet her destiny had something else in store. Ching Shih’s beauty managed to captivate the eyes of a successful pirate Zheng Yi. The duo married in 1801 when Ching Shi was 26 years old. And from here started the legacy of Madame Zheng.

Her husband, Zheng Yi, was the commander of the Red Flag Fleet of the pirate ships and had a reputation among the Ming Dynasty. During the course of his period, he managed to unify several rival Chinese pirate organizations. He united pirates into a confederation through the signing of an agreement in July 1805. The confederation comprises a total of six fleets, red, black, blue, white, yellow, and purple. This formidable alliance included 70,000 sailors, 800 large junks, and around 1000 smaller vessels.

Madame Zheng

Merely 6 years into the marriage, Zheng Yi died in a Tsunami leaving Ching Shih in a prestigious position. Following his death, Ching Shih succeeded him with the support of Zheng Yi’s nephew Zheng Baoyang. Her husband’s adoptive son, Cheung Po Tsai was originally the heir, yet his personal interest with Ching Shih favored her.

More than Zheng Yi’s adoptive son, Cheung Po Tsai was also his lover. It was very common back in the 19th century when wealthy individuals adopt or kidnaped young kids of personal relationships. But after his death, both Ching Shih and Cheung Po Tsai find solace within one another. They solidified their relationship through marriage, making Ching Shih once again the Madame of Red Flag Fleet. She obtained its leadership and commanded several pirate ships.

Madame Zheng Rose To Power

It was a time, when female pirates were a rare phenomenon and women on board served only for pirates’ pleasure, thus being confined under the leadership of a woman was in itself a tremendous achievement. On September 1809, a member of East India Company, Richard Glasspoole was captured by Madame Zheng’s troops. His statement records that she commanded around 1800 pirate ships and 80,000 outlaws, a number much greater than her West counterparts.

The most famous reform during her leadership was the code laws which she introduced to change the curriculum and maintain military discipline. These laws were strict and regulated, if any pirate found giving commands or disobeying their commanders will be sentenced to death. These laws were exceptionally strict when it comes to female captives. Any pirate found sexually assaulting female captives will be beheaded. Consensual sex among the duo was also not tolerated. Though pirates were allowed to marry the female captives, they were required to be faithful to them. Women captured from villages were not harmed or harassed.

Madame Zheng

Under the leadership of Ching Shih, the pirates rose to power and increased their military power with hundreds of guns and canons. Her rule remained undefeated despite an attack from the Portugues, Qing dynasty, and the EIC. She also established several financial offices on the shores of cities and villages that allowed her troops to extract regular protection payments. And just like this, Madame Zheng’s influence reached far beyond the Chinese sea.

Yet her success didn’t lay in the quest but knowing when to give up. By the end of 1810, the tension grew between the Red and Black flag fleets. Guo Podai, leader of the Black Flag Fleet refused to obey Madame Zheng and officially surrendered to Viceroy of Liangguang. Madame Zheng and Cheung Po Tsai surrendered to Bai Ling near Furongsha, at the request of the Chinese government. But they surrendered on their own terms. The confederation was peacefully dismantled the same year and Cheung Po Tsai was allowed to retain junks for personal use. He became a lieutenant in the Chinese army.

In 1822, when Cheung Po Tsai died, Ching Shih was left alone with her six years old son. She returned to the port city of Guangdong and opened a gambling house. It is believed that Madame Zheng lived an exceptionally peaceful life and died a natural death in 1844, unlike most of the pirates. When pirates were assumed to die of attack and tsunamis, Ching Shih met an uncommon end, and maybe that’s why she is remembered as the most successful pirate in history.


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