Ching Shih, or Madame Ching (1775-1844), has been called the most successful pirate in history. For one thing, there was the sheer size of her operation: her Red Flag Fleet consisted of at least 40,000 pirates, with some estimates ranging as high as 80,000. In terms of power, she was unprecedented: the navies of China, Britain, and Portugal all tried to bring her down, and all failed. But perhaps Ching Shih’s greatest success was that, unlike most pirate captains, she got to retire from piracy with her life and treasure intact. When the Chinese authorities realized that they couldn’t defeat her by force of arms, they offered amnesty instead. Ching Shih negotiated an incredibly favorable settlement for herself and her fleet: everybody got full pardons, everybody got to keep their loot, and the officers were given commissions in the Chinese navy. Ching Shih herself retired from the sea with her riches, and spent the rest of her life running a gambling house.

Ching Shih costumeOur costume is based on the typical clothing of the day, but with luxurious fabrics befitting Ching Shih’s status. The items we suggest, from left to right:

1. Empress Chrysanthemum Jacket in blue. Eyewitnesses reported that high-ranking chiefs in the Red Flag Fleet wore silk brocade, so it stands to reason that Ching Shih, as the boss of the whole shebang, could afford the best.
2. Chinese officer’s hat. Also known as a Mandarin hat. This is a pretty nice hat, once you remove the regrettable braided queue. (Resolved: Hats should not come with attached hair.)
3. Tai chi pants in dark blue. Blue cotton trousers were standard with Chinese soldiers and sailors in the period. Any loose fitting pants will work, since you’re going to tuck them into your leggings (next).
4. Wudang socks. These are sold as martial arts socks now, but they used to be standard garb in China.
5. Wudang shoes. Like the socks, these cotton shoes are a traditional Chinese basic now sold as martial arts gear.
6. Costume sword. This is from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

And speaking of Pirates of the Caribbean: The character of Mistress Ching is said to be loosely based on Ching Shih, though actually the Pirates movies are set about a century earlier. Also, the real Ching Shih wasn’t blind and she wasn’t old. In fact, it’s fascinating to realize that Ching Shih was a young mother during her pirating days. She was in her twenties when she married into the pirate world, and in her early thirties when she rose to become the admiral of the Red Flag Fleet. At the height of her power in 1809, one of her children was a toddler and the other was about six. Talk about having it all!

Illustration credits: The background images in our main illustration are from an extraordinary Qing Dynasty scroll entitled “Pacifying the South China Sea.” This 18-meter scroll, now in the collection of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, depicts the Chinese government’s campaign against Ching Shih’s pirate fleet from 1808 to 1810. The fanciful British illustration of Ching Shih is from the book History of the Pirates of all Nations, published in 1836. The 1887 woodcut illustration of a pirate is entitled “Capture of a notorious pirate, Chang Yeh, at Hong Kong.” The miniature figurine of a Qing Dynasty soldier is from the Wargames Foundry and was sculpted by Michael & Alan Perry.


Other costumes in this category: Notable Women