Mei Whattam – Year 12 Student & Chief Editor, Humanities Journal
Feminist. An advocate for women’s rights on the grounds of gender parity. Pirate. An individual who commits illegal acts at sea, including robbery, kidnap and torture. In this lies Ching Shih’s great enigma: she was unquestionably successful in protecting female status and upending the status quo in patriarchal China, yet, she was a prolific murderer and brutal marauder acting lawlessly to garner wealth.
The year is 1775, the zenith of the Qing dynasty prior to the plagues of internal revolt, innate corruption and the fiscal crisis which led to permanent scars upon the Ten Great Campaigns of the Qinglong emperor. There are a glaring lack of records of Shih’s early life in the Guangdong province, China, perhaps of her own omission in an attempt to disguise her humble origins. Regardless, accounts have been formulated that recall the deprivation of her hometown, neighbouring the Port of Canton, the epicentre of China’s naval involvement in the American Revolution, an event that carried glimmers of Westernization to the East. The pressure to generate an income led to her working in a brothel in Canton, where she used sexual subterfuge to uncover and exploit the economic interests of her clients. Again, Shih can be interpreted as a paradoxical character – an independent woman born into a life marred with the scars of penury striving to better herself, or a criminal seeking to profit clandestinely off others through her engagement in prostitution? Perhaps the latter interpretation is the modern Chinese view, especially post-Maoism when the new municipal government under Ye Jianying pledged to eradicate all brothels, starting in Beijing and then stretching to the rest of the nation, a distinct achievement and clear evidence of the primacy of Chinese Marxism for those in power, whereas the first interpretation could be favoured by a modern Western judge.
1804. With Shih aged 29, the pirate Zheng Yi, noted in Eastern naval history for his barbaric thalassic pillages and conquests, ordered his troops to plunder the brothel, demanding that Shih brought to him with the purpose of a forced marriage. The acceptability of this arrangement is illustrative of the brutal misogynistic environment which she was thoughtlessly plunged into, reflecting the detriment of the patriarchy and male domination that thrived throughout 19th Century China. The impecuniosity into which she was plunged is a despicable ordeal that has been experienced by women for millennia: as modern judges we have the capability to view this situation through the lense of gender parity and the #MeToo movement, enabling us to recognise the sheer plight in which Shih was totally deprived of her autonomy and her intrinsic bodily rights. Such pitiable struggles are still faced by a plethora of women today, who would doubtlessly attest to the challenge that Shih was carelessly coerced into. However, the tale of Ching Shih is one of overcoming her unfortunate vicissitudes. She negotiated with Zheng Yi when the marriage arrangements went underway, utilizing the adroitness she picked up in her early career, a skill which allowed her to receive an equal share of any plunder garnered by his fleet: in that moment of tribulation, the first woman who would dominate both Eastern seas and International waters was indubitably born.
After the death of Yi a mere 6 years after their marriage, Shih strived to fill the gaping power vacuum left behind, seeking the support of her political rivals through a plethora of forms of appeasement as well as Ching-Pao-Yang and Ching Ch’i, members of her husband’s family in order to avoid the eruption of open conflict. Shih then utilized military assertion to bind together a pirate coalition formulated with Wu’Shi’er’s Cantonese Fleet, building the foundations of her Red Flag Fleet, which, under her primary command, grew in size from 200 to over 1800 ships and became unassailable across the continent. Once again, Shih subverted the societal normalities that Confucianism had compounded, attesting to her own position instead of yielding power to her son, Chang Pao, something which reflects her ambivalence and ultimately, her subjugation over the innate patriarchy imprinted upon the Eastern doctrines of the 19th Century. This is rendered particularly impressive by her ability to lay 80% taxes on all loot gained as part of the ad hoc government she implemented; bearing in mind that the Qing Dynasty was unable to run an efficient and non-corrupt taxation policy (something which ultimately descended into fiscal crisis) over law-abiding citizens with the full support of the Government, Shih doing so effectively over pirates, the most callous criminals of society, is a formidable and unchallengeable achievements.
Furthermore, the strictest rules she set forth revolved around women’s protection, which judging via the moral framework of today, would enshrine her as the East’s earliest women’s rights advocate. Standard practice was to release women, yet for those who remained, pirates who committed rape, infidelity or sexual violence against them were punished immediately by death, laying down vital moral and legal framework protecting female captives’ rights. This differed greatly from the moral standards which the common populous observed; the majority of men took concubines through force, or through familial connections, showing how Shih overcame the prejudice her gender induced to impose laws upon her pirates that Chinese society as a whole were not bound to abide by. Thus, despite the restrictions of her gender in the era, in conjunction with what was viewed as her merciless actions as a Pirate Lord under her title ‘The Terror of South China’ , she granted women stripped of all else, Bodily Integrity: a fundamental right today held sacrosanct (and now affirmed in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights post – 1966).
Shih did not alter China: it was deplorable before and after her cruelty arguably until the rise of Maoism, and it remained deeply divided by patriarchy despite the example she carried forth. For her contemporaries, she was a menacing figure who stalked the oceans, defeatable by neither the Qing Dynasty officials nor Portuguese and British bounty hunters (until the ill-fated Naval Battle of Chek Lap Kok) yet for modern observers she is an emblematic symbol for feminists to rally around. In post – modern China she is admired for her magnificent rise from ‘rags to riches’, yet questionably less so for her revolutionary feats for women. In this lies the heart of this debate – judgments across regions and time periods will always vary by virtue of their differing moral standards, thus the only standard one can strive to meet is that which one is inherently conscious of. As a result, the only fair metric by which to judge Shih is that of the morality of the China she knew – a draconian, domineering, oppressive society that belittled and undermined the cause of women. Therefore, the fact she was an intrepid female who furthered her own career without regard for any greater cause, within such an environment, is of paramount importance when considering judgement, therefore to ascribe an opinion upon her detached from cultural context is improper and arbitrary. As such, historical figures such as Shih can only be judged by the morality of their day, which for her is 19th Century China, an era which she irrefutably dominated.
Mei Whattam (12ASG)
- Maughan, Philip (1812). “An Account of the Ladrones Who Infested the Coast of China”. Further Statement of the Ladrones on the Coast of China.
- Yuan, Yonglun (1830). Jinghai Fenji. Guangzhou.