Ching Shih: The Former Prostitute Turned Ruthless Pirate Who Put Blackbeard To Shame

By | August 26, 2019

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Portrait of Ching Shih 1776 engraving of Blackbeard. Source: (

When we think of pirates, we think of the prolifically criminal men, both fictional and in the real world, that have captured our imaginations for ages. But what of the lesser-discussed female pirates, perhaps even more fearsome than their male counterparts? These ladies were far cries from swashbuckling sweethearts, and arguably the most terrifying and notable of them all is Ching Shih, the terror of the Chinese seas.

Very little is known about Ching Shih's early life. In fact, Ching Shih isn't even her real name. It means "The Widow of Ching," which was one name for her first husband. But even a name that implies she was nothing but the property of a man never held Ching Shih back. 

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Chinese Junk Ship. Source: (

The young Ching Shih, who was rumored to be a great beauty, worked as a prostitute in a floating brothel in the 18th century in Canton, China. The circumstances of her betrothal to her first husband, Zheng Yi, are debated, but it is certain that, by force or consent, she became the wife of this already powerful pirate captain in 1801 at the age of 16. However, always the savvy businesswoman, Ching Shih negotiated a deal in her marriage: She would have true equality in everything that was her husband's, including his "business dealings" (i.e., stolen booty). This means she took 50% of all proceeds, power, and decision making. At a time when it wasn't weird for a young teenager to be a seasoned brothel employee, this was rather unusual, to say the least.

At the time of their union, Zheng Yi manned what was known as "The Red Fleet," an armada of pirate ships that sailed under a red flag. With Ching Shih’s assistance, the couple amassed an even more formidable coalition of ships with the Red Fleet in the lead. The lesser ships consisted of fleets named for other colors: Black, White, Blue, Yellow, and Green. In total, they commanded 1,200 ships and anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 crew members. Try to imagine 1,000 ships. Even our modern brains aren't capable of it. It's not hard to see why the Zhangs ruled the seas of China pretty much unopposed.