Dragon Lady

26 07 2010

One of the fun things about being a writer is researching things that you find fascinating. Right now I’m lucky enough to be writing about pirates. And I’ve found a heroine who intrigues me. Chinese pirate, Ching Shih, who goes by many other names, took over a pirate fleet of about 200 junks and 50,000 sailors when her husband died in the early 1800s, and she turned it into one of the largest fleets in the world.

Ching Shih had some interesting rules about pirate conduct, including that captured women were not to be raped. Pirates could, however, buy any leftover women (those whose families or villages didn’t raise enough ransom money) for $40, but they had to marry them. Granted, not every woman was overjoyed at the prospect of marrying a pirate, and some jumped overboard.

She also insisted that her pirates pay for the rice or other supplies they got from the villagers along the South China coast. Rather unusual conduct for pirates, wouldn’t you say? But it also insured her crew had all the gunpowder and food they needed. People were eager to hand over necessities when the pirates came calling.

Of course, that wasn’t always voluntary. Ching Shih often demanded tribute from villages and, if they didn’t pay, she exacted revenge. Her crew burned the towns, slaughtered the people, and took captives. They were pirates after all.

Ching Shih has been characterized as shrewd, brave, and resourceful. When she decided to surrender in 1810, she negotiated a military position for her new husband (who was also her adopted son and her first husband’s lover). She even arranged for military honors for herself–a slightly illegal manuever, because widows weren’t granted these honors.

She moved on to a peaceful life as the owner of a gambling house, with possibly a little opium smuggling on the side. All in all, quite a remarkable woman.