The Truth About The Chinese Female Pirate Who Led Thousands

When it comes to famous pirates, any number of names quickly come to mind: Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, and even Captain Jack Sparrow. But the most prolific pirate to ever sail the seven seas was none of those men. In fact, the most prolific raider wasn't even a man (via Biographics, on YouTube). Ching Shih, a former sex worker, rose to notoriety in the 1800s, terrorizing the waterways in and around China during the Qing Dynasty. Over the course of her life, with the help of her husband, she amassed a fleet of 1,800 sailing ships that were crewed by upwards of 80,000 pirates (via Atlas Obscura).

Born Shih Yang in 1775, much of Ching Shih's early life remains a mystery to the ages. However, most historians point to Shih earning her keep as a sex worker on a floating brothel in the city of Canton early in life (via Ancient Origins). It was on this floating bordello that Shih met and eventually married a well-known pirate of the time, Cheng I.

A natural leader with an eye toward business (via Ancient Origins), Ching Shih became fully involved in her husband's business of pirating before the ink was even dried on their marriage certificate. Between the years of 1801 and 1804, while consolidating and amassing men and ships, Ching Shih and Cheng I had two sons: Cheng Ying Shih and Cheng Heung Shih.

Can't stop the Red Flag Fleet

Along the way, the pair did what no one else of the era could do: They unified all the warring pirating parties under one banner. By the end of 1801, the Red Flag Fleet was born (via The Way of the Pirates). Shih and Cheng's newly consolidated power amassed a fleet of 400 ships manned by upwards of 70,000 men. To keep all these ships and bodies organized, the pair used color coding to differentiate the fleet: The fleet's namesake, Red Flag, led the armada, followed up with the Blue, Red, Yellow, Black, and White fleets. Through the following years, Red Flag Fleet continued to grow, amassing renegade pirate crews across China.

Tragedy struck in November 1807, however. While doing business in Vietnam, Ching Shih's husband was killed. Their fleet, now consisting upwards of 1,800 vessels crewed by anywhere between 60,000-80,000 men, was in the balance. When word of her husband's passing reached Shih, she leapt into action.

All adventures must come to an end

Knowing her choice of lifestyle going forward would be limited to a weak position in another marriage or returning to sex work, she grabbed the remains of the Red Flag Fleet in 1809, launching an unprecedented pirating rampage against China. Attacking multiple government camps, river towns and little coastal villages, Ching Shih became known as the "Terror of South China" (via Ancient Origins).

No streak lasts forever, however. In the later part of 1809, Ching Shih and her crew fought the Portuguese Navy. After a months-long battle that stretched into 1810, Ching Shi and her pirate crew surrendered (via Pirates and Privateers), accepting amnesty in exchange for the cease-fire. Ching Shih and most of her 17,000 men were pardoned by the Chinese government.

In her post-pirate days, Ching Shih remarried and had another son and daughter. And while she spent the rest of her days in relative obscurity, passing away in 1844 at the age of 69, Ching Shih's pirating legacy lives on.