Ching Shih, the Lady Pirate Lord Who Needs a TV Series Right Now

Ching Shih, the Lady Pirate Lord Who Needs a TV Series Right Now, featured image
Pirates: An Illustrated History of Privateers, Buccaneers & Pirates from the Sixteenth Century to the Present
An illustration of pirates in a sword fight.

In 2019, Netflix released 371 new movies and shows. Will they make a show about legendary pirate lord Ching Shih? During the patriarchal 19th century, this woman rose from rags to riches like Carnegie, with the cunning ruthlessness of Attila the Hun.

Her life is one of the most remarkable in all of history, with most historians hailing Ching Shih as the most successful pirate of all time, the GOAT of piracy. Shih’s life is a testament to something poetic—the tale of a strong woman who did extraordinary things at the reckless expense of thousands of lives.

It’s a delicious recipe for a morally complex story containing the perfect ingredients for a genuinely great Netflix movie or show.

Here are three reasons that will make you want to see her life portrayed on your TV screen while you eat ramen.

a dimmed image of an old town in china

1. Rags to riches arc

Shih, born in 1775, was only in her mid-20s when she became a pirate. Not much is known about Ching Shih’s early life, except that, before she became a pirate, Shih was a well-known prostitute in Canton, a southeast China city. Her career selling sex allowed Shih to meet the successful pirate Cheng I, who married her for business reasons in 1801. Since both Cheng and Ching had big-time business affiliations with China’s criminal underground, their marriage made sense at the time.

However, only 6 years into their marriage, Cheng I died, giving Shih the chance to seize control of his family’s entire pirate empire. Shih had previously owned 50% of the profits. Now, being the sole proprietor, Shih implemented innovative changes that catapulted the empire to monumental heights.

The numbers themselves sound surreal: 80,000 men, women, and children under her command who maned, at a minimum, 2,000 ships. Movie watchers love naval battles, and Shih was involved in many of those.

A vital component of Ching Shih’s success as a pirate was her victories over the Mandarin navy. Her dominance became a well-known staple on the high seas, so much so that upon seeing one of Shih’s fleets in front of them, a Mandarin naval fleet turned around and fled.

Wouldn’t that make a great scene?

Her ships in hot pursuit, getting closer every second until the naval fleet is within firing range. Ching Shih giving orders as canons fly about, shattering wood, rain, and wind (for melodrama’s sake), all culminating towards a narrowly won victory for the pirates. All the while recalling how this incredible woman came from nothing but just captured a ship to add goods to an already large pile. Sounds like a good arc to me.

figurine of a Chines couple

2. It’s Got Romance! (Well…sort of)

As previously mentioned, Ching’s first husband was Cheng I. A marriage formed with political motives, not romantic love. Most people today would vehemently condemn this type of relationship as being shallow.

And, in most cases, shallow romances don’t make for good storylines. But I would be willing to bet there was a relationship Shih was involved in that will change your mind.

When her first husband, Cheng I, died, Ching Shih took over the piracy enterprise for herself in a series of creative chess moves—one of those moves was hooking up with her adopted son, the heir apparent to the business.

In China, at least in regards to family businesses, piracy was hereditary. When Cheng I and Ching Shih adopted their son Cheng Po, they did so with inheritance on their minds.

Cheung Po Tsai, second husbandof Ching Shih
Cheung Po Tsai

Almost every relationship Ching Shih built after 1807 was to maintain her power. There were hundreds of vessels and cargo at stake, an entire family of pirates, and scores of piracy peers to compete with. Ching Shih had to pull a ‘Game of Thrones’ as a desperate measure in desperate times. But the bizarre mother/son couple could have a significant narrative purpose.

In GOT, the incestuous relationship helps drive the story’s convoluted plot, adding complexity to characters who otherwise would be less three-dimensional. I believe Ching Shih’s relationship with her adopted son can provide that same kind of story drive as in GOT.

History is filled with dramatic tales of incest, especially within the “close” familial relationships found in European royalty.

pirate's map, compass

3. A great cinematic ending

Both cinematically and historically, the life of a powerful criminal never ends Disney Princess style. Pablo Escobar, Bonnie, and Clyde both died in a gunfight while on the run. Gangsters like Al Capone rotted in prison. Not to mention the hundreds of other famous pirates like William Kidd and Blackbeard were usually hung by their necks.

As you can see, every life begins small, grows rich in a raging fireball of ecstasy, then the law catches up with them like a brutal hangover.

However, Ching Shih offers Netflix audiences a different kind of conclusion. After Shih solidified her place of leadership amongst the fleet of ships and the buccaneers who sailed them, the pirate lord created a code of laws. The primary reasons for these rules are her fleet’s massive size and the urgent need to control them. The rules included easy-to-follow ones like no disobeying any of your superior less you wanted to be beheaded. Or the third rule, that all stolen goods had to go through a group inspection to register their booty. Once registered, the pirate would receive 20% off the profit from his designated purser. They were strict rules, ironically enforced by pirates.

Irony aside, the code worked. It helped unify a massive naval force that defeated the likes of China’s top militaries. Unfortunately, the code couldn’t stop the mighty Portuguese, who forced Ching Shih to surrender in 1810, resulting in a very one-sided amnesty deal. The Chinese government was so eager to take down Shih’s pirate empire that they let them keep their booty with only a slap on the wrist.

As long as they were good and stopped attacking merchant ships in the South China Sea, Shih did hold her end of the bargain, retiring to a life of legal trade and family time. Although her life as a devil may hare criminal was over, Ching Shih died a very wealthy, powerful, and free woman.

Ching Shih’s final scenes could be told bittersweetly. A woman who has to make a fresh start as a law-abiding merchant trader. Or you could do a happy ending where Ching Shih gives up and finally gets to rest amongst her spoils. Not exactly a good Sunday School lesson on morals, but at least it’s happy for the Hallmark movie types. Either one will work, in my opinion.

Some lives in the massive world of history deserve to be told, Ching Shih’s life clearly being one of them.

In the 19th century, especially in China, a woman governing a pirate empire would’ve been deemed severely taboo. Despite the social resistance, Shih pushed through and became not just one of the most powerful women in the world but one of the most powerful human beings on earth.


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