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In 1801, Shih Yang - a Cantonese prostitute - married a pirate named Ching I, who at the time was the commander of a pirate fleet of 400 junks. The couple adopted a 15-year-old boy named Chang Poa and together the family's piratical flotilla terrorized every Chinese vessel passing within their reach.

About six years later, Ching I died in a devastating typhoon. Immediately, Madame Ching informed her husband's captains that she would assume the new supreme commander position. And to strengthen her hold on the pirate armada, Madame Ching married her adopted son, who was one of the seven squadron leaders.

Madame Ching emphasized discipline and strict order within her rules of conduct - similar to the Articles of Piracy a century earlier - on every vessel no matter the size. One of her unique regulations demanded that crew members who wanted to get married must have her blessing. Dissidents would be executed. Another one of her articles forbade pirates from pillaging villages who were paid to grow food for her ever-expanding navy. Again, death was the punishment for all who disobeyed. A pirate who was absent from duty without leave had one of his ears cut off and paraded from ship to ship as an example to others.

The amazing tactical strength and sheer force of Madame Ching's pirate fleet proved too strong for the Chinese military. She was never defeated. At the height of her career, she commanded approximately 2,000 ships and 50,000 pirates. They controlled the seas from Hong Kong to Vietnam. Out of desperation, the emperor granted amnesty to all of her pirates in 1810 with the right to retain all of their plunder. Madame Ching was granted command within the imperial fleet, which was assigned to her husband, a palace, and high state honors for her and her captains.

Chang Poa spent the rest of his life in a comfortable government position until his death at the age of 36 in 1822. After Chang's death, Madame Ching returned to Canton where she ran a brothel and gambling house until her death in 1844.

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Did you know?

  • The Jolly Roger was a black flag flown to identify the vessel as a pirate ship. While the skull and crossbones is the most common of these flags, many great pirate captains designed custom symbols to identify exactly who is attacking.

  • "Shiver me timbers" is an expression of excitement or awe. Its origin has to do with sailing in heavy seas, when the ship is lifted up and pounded down so hard that the timbers are said to shiver.

  • Although pirates have been around since the Romans and Vikings, most pirating happened during the Golden Age of Piracy between 1680 and 1730.

  • Pirates believed that whistling on a ship would cause the weather to turn stormy. Consider the phrase 'to whistle up a storm.'

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