At the time of Zheng Yi’s death the armada had tens of thousands of pirates and almost 2,000 ships. With her husband dead, Ching Shih had two choices either return to a life of prostitution or take on her husband’s role instead of his second in command. Chang Pao was designated as second in command and set to take over for Zheng Yi. He was also the adopted son of Zheng Yi and Ching Shih. With the support of Chang Pao she started maneuvering herself into a position of power within the fleet.
She started to build on relationships with her rivals in order to recognize her status and authority. With the support of the most powerful members of her husband’s family she played on the loyalties of the fleet captains. She reminded them of their loyalty to her husband and found ways to make herself essential to the other captains within the fleet. She also started something of a romantic relationship with Chang Pao to secure her position. Chang Pao had also been the lover of her husband.
Once she was secure in her position as leader of the fleet, she got to work implementing changes. She put together a code of laws that all of the pirates in her fleet abided by. However, some sources suggest that it was Chang Pao that issued the code. The code consisted of several regulations that dictated how everything was to be done within the fleet. The first regulation was that anyone issuing their own orders or disobeying the orders of Ching Shih would be beheaded on the spot. Second no one was to steal from a public fund or village that supplied the pirates.
The third regulation required that all goods taken as booty had to be presented for group inspection. It was registered by a purser and the fleet leader then distributed the booty. The original seizer took 20% and the rest was placed into the public fund. The fourth regulation required that actual money was given to the squadron leader who would use the money to purchase supplies for unsuccessful ships as well as give a small amount to the seizer.
There were also regulations for the treatment of women. A pirate could take a women prisoner as a wife but he had to be faithful to her. Women who weren’t desired by the pirates were ransomed or released. Any pirate who raped a woman was put to death. If a pirate had consensual sex with a woman captive both the pirate and the woman would be put to death. Punishments for pirates who disobeyed orders ranged from flogging to quartering. Anyone caught leaving without permission had their ears cut off and were then paraded around the squadron.
The code made a fleet of pirates that was almost unmatched on the seas. They were so fearful of the code and punishment that they would do anything to avoid punishment. They would be “intrepid in attack, desperate in defense, and unyielding even when outnumbered.” While it may have been a strict code it allowed Ching Shih to have a pirating career that was unparalleled by the even some of history’s most well-known pirates.