Welcome to "History Is Rad," where we recount historical events and figures that were probably never taught to you in school, even though they totally should have been (because they're rad). Today, we will tell you about the life of Ching Shih, who was possibly the greatest pirate lord who ever lived and basically all of the most badass Game of Thrones characters combined into one human being.
Ching Shih's early life remains a mystery - but we know she was working as a prostitute when she was taken by pirates and married to their leader, Cheng I.
She was no ordinary wife - Ching Shih took on her new role with gusto, becoming a partner in her husband's life as a pirate and joining him in raids and attacks. And with her help, Cheng I was able to create an alliance of Cantonese pirate fleets - creating the Red Flag Fleet, which boasted over 300 ships and between 20,000 - 40,000 pirates in its ranks.
So, she went from "prostitute from Nowheresville" to "Pirate Queen" almost instantly. Pretty rad.
It wasn't long after that Cheng I died - and while he had named his adopted son Cheung Po Tsai as his heir, Ching Shih used her wits and charm to gain the loyalty of the essential captains of the Red Flag Fleet and take over as commander. And to solidify her leadership, she took Cheung Po Tsai as her second-in-command and eventual husband.
And with that, Ching Shih became the most powerful pirate lord of the Qing Dynasty. Like, she is almost exactly Daenerys Targaryen except real.
Shih knew maintaining a pirate fleet so massive could easily fall apart if she didn't rule with an iron fist - so she set out her own code of laws:
1. Anyone giving orders that did not come from Ching Shih or her lieutenants or disobeying the orders of their superior was immediately beheaded.
2. Anyone caught stealing from the group's funds or from villagers who assisted the pirates would be severely punished.
3. All stolen booty had to be presented to a group, so that everyone could inspect the goods and evenly distributed by the fleet leader.
4. When actual money or gold was taken, it was to be given to the fleet leader - who would give a small portion to the person who stole the cash. Most of the money was used to purchase supplies for less successful ships to keep everyone properly provisioned.
"Immediate beheading" might sound like kinda a harsh punishment for not following orders, but then again WHY WOULDN'T YOU FOLLOW THE ORDERS OF THIS PIRATE QUEEN?
The consequences for violating these laws included flogging, clapping in irons, quartering, and disfigurement (in addition to beheading). And there were even a special set of laws dictating what would happen to female captives in particular - raping a woman was an immediate death sentence, and consensual sex between a pirate and a female captive would result in them BOTH being put to death (the pirate by beheading, the woman by drowning). And if a pirate in her fleet took a captive as their wife, they were required to remain faithful to her.
The result of these laws and their strict enforcement was one of the most disciplined, powerful pirate forces in recorded history. So, there was a little Euron Greyjoy in there too. Like, 20% Euron Greyjoy and 80% Daenerys Targaryen - AND without all of Daenerys' plot armor.
The Red Flag Fleet sailed up and down coastal China - sacking villages and markets, plundering ships, and defeating various armies and mercenaries that got in their way. Forces from the Qing Dynasty, the Portuguese Navy, and the East India Company attempted to take on the Red Flag Fleet, but were met with bitter defeat at every outing.
HBO, I know Game of Thrones is ending - MAKE A SHOW ABOUT THIS NEXT, OKAY?
Those who defied or fought back against Ching Shih met with gruesome fates - in one instance, a village who put together a militia to resist the Red Flag Fleet lost 80 men to beheading, and most of the women and children were captured and sold into slavery. When the Chinese Imperial Army sent a massive force to dismantle Shih's fleet, they lost 63 ships - and one captured officer was nailed to the ship's deck and brutally beaten. A Navy Admiral by the name of Kwo Lang committed suicide to evade capture and torture the Red Flag Fleet was infamous for.
But, there's no way ANYONE could keep this kind of thing going indefinitely, right? She had to get taken down eventually - after all, she was an INFAMOUS PIRATE LORD WHO MADE PEOPLE KILL THEMSELVES IN TERROR. That kind of reputation can't go unpunished.
Oh wait no it totally can.
Years of their infamy took their toll - more and more challengers began pursuing the Red Flag Fleet, and they began suffering defeats. Seizing on the opportunity, the Chinese government offered amnesty to all pirates, hoping to dilute the fleet's power - Ching Shih took the offer, and became one of the few legendary pirates to ever live long enough to retire.
She was able to negotiate to keep her loot, have her slate wiped clean, and opened up a gambling house. She died at the age of 69. NICE.
For more art by Beverly Johnson, click here!