Did you know there were six Chinese women pirates who dominated the South Seas in the 20th century?
Lo Hon-cho ruthlessly attacked fishing villages and fleets, taking young women as prisoners in the 1920’s. And, how about the more modern pirate Cheung Chiu Ping? She smuggled thousands of Chinese immigrants, bringing them to the U.S. and Europe from the 1970’s to the 1990’s, eventually dying in an American prison in 2014. Both of these pirates are interesting examples of renegade women marauding through history.
While neither were peace-builders` in the traditional sense, both were leaders circumventing the cultural and social barriers of their time. This is certainly true when you consider the more common practices of women who were kept as concubines and followed behind men in subservient roles.
Even more impressive than Hon-cho and Chiu PIng, was another Chinese woman named Ching Shih.
She lived in the 19th century and amassed what is generally regarded as the largest armada of any pirate fleet in history. Commanding over 1500 ships and 80,000 pirates, Ching Shih exemplifies renegade warrior women powering through history using brazen tactics and strategic leadership skills.
Ching Shih’s unconventional success also provides a wonderful lesson in the power of adaptability, self-confidence and opportunity, thereby explaining today’s title, “Finding Your Ching-Shih.” While not suggesting we all become pirates, it’s worth noting that skills like inclusion, fairness, organizational adaptability and strategic insight (to name a few) are the same skills that made Ching Shih the greatest pirate of the 19th century and possibly of all time.
First, a disclaimer before we explore this assertion: resist the knee-jerk reaction when I tell you Ching Shih worked as a prostitute in the city of Guangzhou before she ruled the high seas. Perhaps this helped fuel her insight into human nature?
It’s uncertain whether or not her husband Zheng I (also spelled Cheng) kidnapped her when he saw how beautiful she was and made her his wife; or whether it was Ching Shih who actively tempted Cheng and sought out the union.
What we do know is that Ching Shih was born in 1775 and married a notorious and successful pirate. Cheng was the commanding officer of the Red Flag Fleet in China. After they married, they ruled together to command over 300 ships and created a successful pirate coalition until Cheng died six years later.
Under Ching Shih’s watch, and at the peak of her power in 1810, her command included over 1500 ships.
Her power stretched over coastal villages from Macau to Canton, and formed a vast spy network within the Qing Dynasty (the last Imperial Dynasty). She created laws and taxes to protect her fleet from challenging armies from Britain, Portugal and China.
This earned her the nickname, “Terror of South China.”
In this way, Ching Shih did more than assume the power of her fallen husband and build a massive armada of over 70-80,000 men. She challenged her followers to prove their worthiness, using a quiet voice and thoughtful demeanor.
Her leadership style also depended on the strict enforcement of policies for every ship. For example, the bounty from any piracy was always divided equally. This collaborative – all for one and one for all – approach was non-negotiable. Any cheaters were rewarded with a gruesome beheading.
As for standing up for her fellow women, Ching Shih made sure any pirate who raped a woman was beheaded. This brings a whole new meaning to the word “solidarity”. Stealing was forbidden and criminals were met with swift punishment, also losing their head. Additional research about Ching Shih suggests she released captured women who were ugly and allowed men to keep the beautiful ones only if they treated them with respect.
While some readers may only see Ching Shih’s behavior as unethical – understandable, after all she was a pirate – I have to admit I am impressed by any woman (or man) who could rule over ten’s of thousands of pirates and maintain control.
Certainly, Ching Shih broke the law but perhaps she saw herself as a kind of Robin Hood fighting a corrupt government and establishing a code of conduct that was more equitable?
It’s interesting that Ching Shih adhered to strictly enforced rules and governed with an iron fist. The Chinese, European and Portuguese governments wanted to defeat. Yet, when they tried to infiltrate her fleet by sending suicide boats to blow up her ships, their plans failed. Eventually, Ching Shih grew tired of the assaults and negotiated a clemency deal in return for her retirement.
The Chinese government canceled the bounty on her head, allowing her to keep the fortune she’d accumulated in return for a noble title, “Lady by Imperial Decree”, entitling her to various legal protections as a member of the aristocracy.
At the ripe old age of 35, Ching Shih opened a gambling house/brothel in Guangzhou. She managed it until her death at the age of 69, after settling down and becoming a mother.
According to Deep Patel, the author of “Traits of Highly Effective People”, the best leaders are great communicators. While female pirate leaders are a rare phenomenon, Ching Shih is certainly a fascinating and inspiring study in leadership. Her ability to build a powerful fleet of renegade pirates and strategically govern them, while fending off huge government-driven attacks, challenges the traditional role of Chinese women in history.
If you define a pirate as someone who challenges a code of conduct or mainstream beliefs and ethics in favor of an alternative view, then maybe we would all do well with a healthy dose of Ching Shih attitude.
In the end, Ching Shih insisted on an equitable distribution of wealth that challenged the status quo.
Today, companies like She Power are looking for ways to build support for women in business and redistribute the balance of power. By paying attention to the strength and potential of women as leaders, they are banking on their success.
So raise a glass of grog (pirate name for rum and water slug that Ching Shih’s men likely drank) to finding your Ching Shih. If you have a Ching Shih story about a powerful woman, we’d love to hear from you.