Shih Yang also known popularly as Madame Ching was one of the greatest Chinese pirates who sailed the seas in the 19th century.
At the height of her career she commanded approximately 2,000 ships and 50,000 pirates controlling the seas from Hong Kong to the Vietnamese border. Piracy was instigated by the people living by the sea; they were starving. They could see the Portuguese and English trading ships carrying fruit, vegetables and meat to the more wealthy Chinese people.
When one of these ships was wrecked by a storm, the sea-side villagers sailed out to the ship to retreive its cargo. When they got to the ship the produce was still being guarded! Out of desperation, the villagers murdered all the guards and took the food home.
This activity was soon organized into a systematic operation under the command of Ching Yih. In fact, other pirates realized how good he was and joined under his command. Ching did not limit his theivery to the sea. His crew also went inland. Along with booty and produce, this pirate crew took villagers as slaves.
The officials at Peking sent forty warships to take down this pirate armada, but failed. Ching sank all these ships except twenty-eight, which he kept for his armada. After the battle with Peking, Ching decided to ‘take’ a wife. Twenty of the ‘choice’ female slaves where brought before him bound, one being Shih Yang. Not only was Shih thought to be beautiful, but she was larger than most women and her feet had not been bound as is traditional custom.
Ching untied Shih and she clawed at his face almost blinding him. He decided to persuade her to marry him by giving her jewels, garments, and slaves. He also said this is the type of luxury she would have as his wife. Shih would only agree to marry Ching if she received half of all his property and joint command of the pirate fleet. He agreed and they were married in 1801.
They also adopted a boy named Chang Poa (then 15) who was a captive of Ching’s. She soon took command of two of his squadrons, which totalled a third of the entire fleet. Where she learned how to command at sea is unknown, but she was so gifted that even her husband feared her. By 1806, virtually every Chinese vessel passing the coast paid protection money.
Ching and Shih were only married a short time as Ching was killed during a typhoon in 1807. After his death Shih informed the captains that she meant to command the entire fleet and no one disagreed. Shortly therafter, Shih fell into an affair with her adopted son who was already a lieutenant in the fleet. They were soon married which cemented the family’s hold on the armada.
The fleet, under Madame Ching, was even more prosperous than before. Madame Ching was so organized that she posted rules of conduct on even the smallest sailing vessel. One of the regulations was ‘To use violence against any woman, or to wed her without permission, shall be punished with death.’ She also realized that to feed and care for the large number of pirates one could not raid on shore or the villagers would be hostile. To remedy this situation, she hired villagers who grew grapes, rice, etc. to work for her so she would always have supplies.
She also announced that any pirate who pilfered from these employees would be executed. Madame Ching was never defeated as it was stronger than the Chinese military. Out of desperation, the emperor of China granted amnesty to all pirates in 1810. Madame Ching negotiated the pardons for herself and her captains.
The agreement was made that Madame Ching (which went to her husband) would command a part of the imperial fleet, receive a palace and high honors for her and her captains and retain her fortune if she would retire. She agreed and it is said that ‘the seas were once again peaceful’.
Madame Ching and Chang Pao settled in Fukien. They had one son. Chang Pao spent the rest of his life in a comfortable government position (died in 1822 at the age of 36). After Chang’s death, Shih returned to Canton where she ran a gambling house and brothel until her death in 1844. She was in her sixties.
Check out Under a Pacific Sun for more interesting background on Madame Ching Shih.
Article credited to: Shih Yang (aka Madame Ching, Ching Shih, Cheng I Sao, and Hsi Kai Ching Yih) Post title photo attributed to: Secrets of the Mantis