The Lady Pirate Who Terrorized Her Way to the Good Life

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The history of piracy is full of clichés. Yet the world’s most successful buccaneer might have been Chinese — and a woman. Ching Shih, also known as Cheng I Sao, instilled fear in the hearts of merchants across the China Sea in the early 19th century. During her relatively short run as a pirate lord — about a decade — this ruthless and cunning woman went from being a prostitute to commanding the infamous “Red Flag Fleet” and sending hundreds of thousands of men into battle.

At the height of her success, Ching Shih’s pirate armada boasted 1,600 ships, and she commanded more than 70,000 male and female pirates, spies and suppliers. Her sphere of influence stretched from the waters of the South China Sea through much of Guangdong Province, and she even had spies working within the ruling Qing Dynasty.

The Qing emperor, Jiaqing, raised a large fleet of ships against her to no avail. Ching Shih was eventually offered amnesty by Jiaqing, and went on to retire at the ripe age of 35. The queen of the pirates then had a child, opened a brothel and lived a comfortable life until she died, at age 69, a wealthy aristocrat. Her name has been largely forgotten, but her legacy still lives today on the pirate-infested waters of the South China Sea.

Video by Charlotte Buchen

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