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Empress of the Seas: Madam Ching

Updated on March 25, 2016

Madam Ching

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Terror of Southern China

Only two things were certain in the life of a peasant prostitute in early 19th century China: horrific abuse and death. You may wonder why anyone would choose a life like this, but prostitution then, as it often is now, was an occupation that an unwanted girl was sold into. In Canton, a group of these girls were forced to work on a floating brothel in a backwater fishing village, with no hope for escape and no reason that their lives should ever improve … and when the pirates arrived, things could only get worse.

In the early 1800s, Chinese peasants who had been forced off their land by the hated Mandarin dynasty and were unable to find worthwhile work elsewhere took to the seas and became savage pirates. Zheng Yi was the captain of the largest pirate fleet at the time—he was so powerful that he boasted that he would overthrow the Mandarins himself—and he regularly raided up and down the Chinese coastline, plundering villages. He took whatever—and whoever—he wanted.

The day Zheng Yi’s Red Flag Fleet sailed into Canton, the poor villagers had no way of defending themselves and were instantly overrun. The pirates took everything they could carry, including all of the prostitutes from the floating brothel. The terrified women were dragged screaming onto Zheng Yi’s flagship, where they were forced to stand before the captain for inspection. Zheng Yi had decided that it was high time he pick a wife, and as he stepped up to each petrified woman, he ordered his men to untie her so he could get a better look.

Fairly impressed with what he saw but not satisfied yet, Zheng Yi inspected each of the captive women, finally coming up to one girl who looked to be about eighteen years old, named Hsi Kai. He commanded his men to untie her—then yelped in terror as the girl instantly launched herself at him, shrieking like a demon as she knocked him to the deck, landed on his chest and drove her fingernails into his eyes. His horrified crew lunged for her, grabbing Hsi Kai and ripping her off of their captain. They drew their swords to kill her but the astonished Zheng Yi sat bolt right up and roared for the pirates to stand down—this woman was going to be his wife, and he forbade any other man to touch her.

Hearing that, the young prostitute sneered at the pirate king, saying she would never be the wife of a pirate—it was about as bad as being a prostitute. Zheng Yi quickly waved her words away, assuring Hsi Kai that, as his wife, she would be treated like a queen. She’d never had to endure mistreatment at any many ever again. She would be fabulously wealthy and, to prove it, Zheng Yi ordered several trunks of treasure brought to the girl.

Hsi Kai looked at the array of gold, silks, pearls and gems … and shook her head. Standing before Zheng Yi, she stated that if she was to be his wife, then she wanted half of his pirate fleet.

And Zheng Yi agreed.

The pair were swiftly married, forming a partnership that was uniquely egalitarian for the time, and the pirate king taught his queen everything he knew about sailing, fighting, pillaging, blackmailing, extortion, capturing ships, outrunning pirate hunters and diplomacy, for those rare times that they’d need it, and Hsi Kai soon gained command over the White squadron. It would seem that they did have at least a deep affection for one another, but they never had any children. Sometime into Hsi Kai’s reign, Zheng Yi captured an old fisherman and his son, named Paou, and Zheng Yi was so impressed with the young man’s intelligence and ability to learn that he not only made Paou second in command, but adopted him as his own son as well.

The pirates lived well for many years, but when a violent typhoon swept Zheng Yi overboard, the individual captains of the Red Flag Fleet’s squadron began to bicker amongst themselves; what should they do? Should they take their squadron and split apart, operating independently of one another, or should someone knew take command? Was there even anybody capable of leading a pirate fleet as big as theirs?

Insulted that she was not invited, Hsi Kai, now called Zheng Yi Sao or “Zheng’s Wife,” a name that the invading Europeans would twist into the more famous Madam Ching, stormed into the council dressed in her husband’s captain’s uniform, an imperial purple and golden dragon robe, helmet and several swords. Facing the startled men, Madam Ching snapped, “Look at me, Captains. Your departed chief sat in council with me. Your most powerful fleet, the White, under my command, took more prizes than any other. Do you think I will bow to any other chief?”

She had a point, and the assembled squad captains largely agreed with her. They installed Madam Ching as their fleet captain, and Paou as her second in command. Madam Ching began her reign by installing a new set of pirate laws that were strictly enforced. Perhaps hearkening back to her time spent trapped in the brothel, Madam Ching forbade the rape of any female captives, and should a pirate be found guilty of that hideous crime, a huge rock was tied around his ankles and he was flung overboard. No one was allowed to severely harm captives—they were worth more in one piece—and any pirate caught stealing treasure out of the haul was executed. If her pirates accidentally attacked a ship that was under their protection (that is, they would pay the pirates a fee to be permitted to pass through unharmed), then those pirates had to pay compensation to the victims. Children were not to be tortured.

Madam Ching quickly set the pirates to work, not only raiding the Chinese coastline from Hong Kong to Vietnam (it’s said that she was especially vicious to her old home region) but launching new attacks against European merchant vessels and openly attacking imperial Chinese ships. Now called, “the wasps of the ocean,” Madam Ching’s fleet was becoming so powerful and wealthy that they all but owned the seas they sailed on. They had dozens of hideouts along the coast, had no issue with utterly wiping out villages that fought back, and Madam Ching, a phenomenal and meticulous bookkeeper, set up several financial and tax offices in the city of Guangdong to manage the fleet’s wealth. She also ordered her pirates to never again refer to their haul as “plunder”—she had them call it “transshipped goods,” and ever recorded it that way in her ledgers.

The Red Flag Fleet had become such a nightmare that the Chinese government was forced to act. In 1808, the Chinese launched sixty war junks against Madam Ching, confident that she had no way of defending herself against that kind of power … until she ambushed them and captured thirty of their war junks. Now commanding a fleet of 800 large ships, 1000 smaller ships, and an estimated 70,000 pirates, Madam Ching was now more like a pirate empress, easily defeating every Chinese junk, Portuguese man o’ war or English warship she encountered. It got so bad that the Mandarin navy would turn tail and flee the second she raised her battle flag. The Chinese then decided that they would starve the pirates into submission by forbidding any ships to pass in that area, but Madam Ching wasn’t worried—she just sent her pirates in rowboats up river to raid more towns.

Somewhere in between raiding villages, capturing ships and thoroughly humiliating the imperial navy—as well as the Portuguese and English navies—Madam Ching and Paou fell in love and married. While it seems many of the pirates were fine with the union, the commander of the Black Flag Squadron, Cheung Po-tsei, was a little less than happy. Apparently, and for reasons not currently known, Po-tsei didn’t like Paou, and likely resented that, as Madam Ching’s second in command and husband, Paou wielded even more power and influence over the fleet. Furthermore, Po-tsei and Madam Ching had an ongoing rivalry for years, and this marriage just infuriated him further.

One day, Paou’s ships were fiercely attacked and surrounded by enemies (likely Chinese and Portuguese navy and possibly The Mercury, an English warship armed with twenty cannons), and Po-tsei was dispatched to help him. Po-tsei took one look at the chaos, announced that there was no way he could assist, and simply left. Paou was outraged and, after escaping the battle, chased Po-tsei down. He and Po-tsei clashed violently, and Paou lost 16 ships and 300 pirates. He was forced to flee a second time and, knowing that Madam Ching would rip him apart for first abandoning and then fighting Paou, Po-tsei fled to the mainland, where he turned himself in to the government. He offered to help them hunt Madam Ching’s pirates, and was made an imperial officer in exchange.

To say that Madam Ching was unhappy would likely be a huge understatement; one of her commanders had betrayed her, taking his huge squadron and joining the imperial government. Po-tsei was a skilled pirate, he knew Madam Ching’s tactics, and he knew where her hideouts were. The navy had never stood a chance against her before, but with Po-tsei aiding them now, the navy might actually be able to wipe them out.

That wasn’t Madam Ching’s only problem; in the almost ten years that she had ruled the Red Flag Fleet, the fleet itself had gotten too big. She had more ships than she could maintain, and more pirates than what she could adequately pay or feed. There could be a massive mutiny in the future.

As Madam Ching and Paou discussed what to do, a messenger from the emperor arrived—Dr. Chow, a good and trusted friend of Paou’s. Coming on board, Chow nervously explained that Po-tsei was gearing up to come after Madam Ching with his new fleet, but the emperor had said he was willing to grant all of the pirates clemency and reward them if they just simply surrendered. Madam Ching and Paou smelled a trap, but Chow insisted that the emperor would let them all live if they surrendered … otherwise, it was going to be a horrific battle against Po-tsei.

In the end, both Madam Ching and Paou felt as though they had no choice and agreed to meet with a regional governor that had been appointed as their liaison. They brought their pirates to shore and explained that they had made a deal with the emperor. Surprisingly, the majority of the pirates didn’t object—they were getting paid to quit? And there was no threat of imprisonment? Sounded like a great deal, but they were concerned with what could happen to Madam Ching and Paou. Other squadrons flat out refused the deal and returned to sea.

As it turns out, the Chinese government held true to their word, declaring the pirates absolved of their crimes and gave each one a generous reward in exchange for their weapons and a promise never to return to piracy again. Paou was offered an exclusive position as an imperial pirate hunter—which must have aggravated Po-tsei to no end—and worked with the imperial navy on wiping out the last of the pirates in the South China Sea. In less than a year, he had eliminated all pirates from those waters.

Madam Ching, only twenty-five and incredibly wealthy, retired from piracy and opened a gambling house, though many claim that she still ran a few illegal businesses in the back. She and Paou had a family before she passed away uneventfully in 1844 at 69 years old, forever unrivaled as the greatest pirate of all time.

Madam Ching works referenced:

Warrior Women, Robin Cross & Rosalind Miles 2011

Women Warriors, David E Jones 2000

Bad Girls, Jan Stradling 2008

Women Were Pirates Too, C.T. Anthony 2006

Ching Shih

Chinese Junk

Attributed to George Chinnery [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Attributed to George Chinnery [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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    • someonewhoknows profile image


      7 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      The story of a former prostitute who becomes a woman pirate.

      Amazing story and well told here!


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