By the 19th century, the Golden Age of Piracy was over. The life of a pirate was harder, navies were sent out to stop pirates from disrupting trade, Kings were no longer supportive of privateers and able-bodied sailors were being pulled toward respectable jobs instead of the life of a pirate. And yet, in the midst of the great decline of piracy, one would manage to become what many call the most successful pirate in history. Ching Shih went from being a prostitute to having 40,000 pirates at her command in what is one of the most incredible stories ever told on the seven seas.
Ching Shih was born Shih Gang Xu in 1775 and she grew up in the province of Guangdong. When she reached a certain age, she took up work as a prostitute in a floating brothel. How long she was a prostitute and what her early life was like is largely a mystery. It was not until 1801 that her life took a drastic change as she caught the eye of the pirate Zheng Yi who commanded a fleet that was known as the “Red Flag Fleet.”
Zheng Yi or Cheng I belonged to a family of successful pirates that could trace their criminal roots to the mid-seventeenth century. He had spent his life reuniting several rival Chinese pirate organizations and had hundreds of ships and thousands of pirates under his command. Some records say that Zheng Yi wanted Shih Gang Xu for her beauty and others relate that he had heard of her keen business savvy. As a prostitute, Shih Gang Xu had learned secrets about a number of her wealthy and politically connected clients and used that to wield power over them.
Not only is it unclear why Zheng Yi was so intrigued by Shih but also it is not clear how he became married to her. Some accounts suggest that he raided the brothel and took her as a prisoner and then requested her hand in marriage. Others say that he simply asked her for hand. But Shih did not readily agree to the marriage. Instead, she said that she would only agree to marry Zheng Yi if she was given power in his fleet and an equal share of the loot the fleet took in.
Zheng Yi agreed to Shih’s conditions and the two were wed. Their marriage and their life of piracy together was quite successful. Zheng Yi’s fleet grew from 200 ships to 1,800. Zheng Yi used his reputation to continue to unite Cantonese pirate fleets to sail under him and unite together. By 1804, Zheng Yi and Ching Shih were in command of a very formidable force and one of the most powerful pirate fleets in all of China. Their success and time as a couple was cut tragically short when Zheng Yi perished in 1807 during the Tay Son Rebellion in Vietnam.