It Was a Woman’s World, Too: Ching Shih

We welcome you again to the world of speculative fiction, where there are no limits for what an individual can accomplish—except in the mind of the writer. Often, while we can create entire worlds out of our imaginations, stories of adventure and daring do have been limited to male characters, based on the belief that women in Earths’ history did not live adventurous or public lives.

In this series, we would like to counter that notion with examples of women who did just that, lived lives of excitement and public importance. We hope that the lives of these women inspire you to reach beyond the common narrative and to give voices to extraordinary women in your own stories.

Meet Ching Shih (1775 – 1846)

Ching Shih was arguably the greatest pirate to have ever lived. She sailed the South China Seas during the middle Qing period and at the height of her power commanded over 1,800 junks and up to 80,000 pirates, depending on sources.

She was born in 1775 as Shi Yang and while little is known of her early life we do know she worked in a Cantonese brothel when she was young. In 1801 she married a famous pirate from a large pirate family, Cheng I, who rumor has it, sought her out for her keen business acumen. She helped Cheng I to create a pirate armada out of rival Cantonese fleets, many of which led by Cheng’s own relatives, eventually forming the infamous Red Flag Fleet.

In 1807 Cheng I died, leaving Shi Yang to take the name Ching Shih (Cheng’s widow) and to consolidate power. She allied with her adopted step-son and Cheng I’s lover, Cheung Po Tsai, setting him up as the titular head of the fleet while she maintained actual control. She also took him as her own lover. Cheung Po would manage the day-to-day operations of the fleet while taking commands from Ching Shih.

Ching Shih also codified a new set of laws for the Red Flag Fleet to follow, and no matter how small a ship, these laws were ordered to be on display for all to see. Notably, she set special rules for female captives, protecting them from rape and coercion by threat of death, and enforcing fidelity on the part of their male partners in the event that they married a pirate.

In 1808, the Chinese government made a concerted effort to destroy the Red Flag Fleet by barricading them behind an overwhelming blockade. Three weeks later, Ching Shih sailed away mostly unscathed, having taken over the government ships, leaving the Chinese navy with nothing more than fishing boats to fight with.

However, by 1810, infighting among the pirates had begun to take its toll and the Red Flag Fleet was in decline. Ching Shih turned her shrewd mind towards bargaining with the Chinese government, eventually winning freedom and a payout for her efforts, as well as for most of her pirates. In exchange for laying down arms, they would almost all walk away.

Ching Shih finally married Cheung Po (after having her adoption of him waived) and settled into life back to her roots as a madam of a brothel and gambling hall. She died at the ripe old age of 69, a well-respected business woman, having controlled the South China Seas for a spectacular handful of years.

As a historical figure, Ching Shih was fascinating. As a character, she could be amazing. At every turn, she exhibited agency in driving her own story, and disregarded the limitations society placed on her simply because of her sex. A character like Ching Shih would be one to remember.

For Discussion

Imagine your favorite action story. What effects would swapping a male character for a female one have on the story? What would need to change? What could stay the same?

A. E. Lowan is the pseudonym of three authors who collectively create the dark urban fantasy series, The Books of Binding. Their first novel, Faerie Rising, is available at Amazon. For free original short fiction and all things Seahaven, check out the A. E. Lowan website.

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Reply to  A. E. Lowan
3 years ago

Thanks for clarifying! 🙂

3 years ago

I have to confess I’m a little disturbed by seeing the phrase “adopted-son and lover” in the same sentence. Is there anyway you could elaborate? Cause, honestly, I’m picturing a little kid with a couple of sexual predators. Very disturbing image.

That being said, I know it was custom in some ancient cultures to adopt full-grown adults as “children.” Mostly this would be so a barren couple would have an heir. I’m really hoping it’s something like this.

Moral quagmire aside, I am writing a YA Fantasy which involves a female pirate, so I did find this article to be a bit of useful lore. It did present a picture of female piracy which I had not encountered before.

Brian Stone
3 years ago

When people see something original, they’re hesitant to take a look, not knowing if they’ll enjoy it. But I want to put this Fantasy-Adventure story into the world. My lead character is a young female warrior gifted with the height and strength of her barbarian people. But the body is not meant to define the character. It’s a resource she uses to fight evil.
It’s true she wants to fight for “the good of all goodly peoples”. But on the other hand she’s motivated by just a little bit of selfishness and insecurity, wanting to win her own glory.
What defines her is what she does and says.
Physical ability is like an enduring heart, or a strong intellect. It’s a form of vitality. And that vitality is a beautiful thing to see in a woman.
If a good story comes to life through her, do you think the reading public can warm up to a tall, strong heroine?

Reply to  A. E. Lowan
3 years ago

Thank you. I’m posting my story in installments on my website. I love your phrase, “Able to be mothers and monsters.” That’s what I want to portray for the women of my barbarian kingdom and story – – to show different facets. One is not confined to a role just because one excels in it. One is not forbidden a role just because someone else excels in it.
And, one theme I’m trying to pursue in this story is, we all have different gifts. Just because you don’t have the same gift as another person, does not make you less important as a person. Even if their gift gets all the attention.
This is why I set it up so her love interest is a blacksmith and magical item crafter. Just because he’s not a warrior, doesn’t mean he’s unworthy of her.
So I gave her a powerful body and personal insecurities (not that she admits it), and sent her out into the world to be the best woman she can be.
And, I have to admit, the more I write about these characters, the more I love it. The creation that can be achieved through characters with pen and paper is just such an wonderful thing. What are the limits of this creation? As long as we’re alive, there are no limits.
Now, if I could just attract more readers to my site. I’m trying to get more familiar with google search engine optimization.

E.L. Skip Knox
3 years ago

Did she ever captain her own ship?

That line about a pirate family is intriguing. Piracy isn’t usually something that gets passed down through generations, or at least I never imagined it being so.

Good article!

3 years ago
A. E. Lowan

We didn't run into any references of her doing this (though it does seem to be her style, doesn't it?), but she wasn't the only female pirate operating in the South China Seas. Much later, towards the beginning of the twentieth century, a Mrs. Hon-cho-lo plied the waters near Hong Kong.

There were actually a lot of female pirates

3 years ago

Was she the same one who would sometimes nail defeated opponents’ feet to the deck of her ships and beat them to death? It was one of the female pirates…

At any rate, so badass I could cry

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