Although most of the pirates Westerners remember today were men who operated in the West Indies, there have been a great many pirates, including women, who operated along the coast of South China during the Golden Age of Piracy in the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the most prominent female Chinese pirates at that time was the prostitute turned pirate Ching Shih (alternatively spelled Hsi Ka, Cheng I Sao, and Zh ng Sh") who commanded 17,000 men and several hundred vessels at the height of her power in 1810. Her meteoric rise to power, the extent of her control, and her quick retirement at the age of 35 are testaments to her skill and shrewdness as one of the great pirate captains of the early 19th century.
Nothing is known about the life of Ching Shih until she was captured at the age of 26 by pirates under orders of the infamous Zheng Yi (AKA Ching Yih) in 1801. At that time, she had been working in a Cantonese brothel and was apparently unhappy to be taken from it. Although she showed utter contempt for Zheng Yi and his men, Ching Shih agreed to marry Zheng after he fell in love with her. She demanded a 50% stake in his criminal enterprises, however, which she obtained. At that time, Ching Shih was already a powerful pirate with command of six fleets. Soon after the marriage, Ching Shih took command of one of those fleets and quickly gained the respect of her crews.
In 1807, Zheng He was killed in a typhoon and ownership of the six fleets devolved to Ching Yih. That she, a woman and a former prostitute at that, was able to command the respect and loyalty of all six fleets says a lot about her domineering personality. Indeed, under her leadership, the six fleets grew and became only a part of a powerful organization in South China. At the height of her power, Ching Shih controlled two hundred ocean vessels, eight hundred small ships, and dozens of river boats which were manned by over 17,000 men. That made her the leader of one of the biggest navies in the world at the time.
With this vast armada, she was able to exact tribute from merchants all over the South Pacific and enforce her own laws. Indeed, she became the most powerful individual in the South Pacific and rivaled the Chinese government itself in power and authority. Eventually, she became too powerful for the Chinese government to ignore any longer. Even with the help of the British and the Portuguese, the Chinese feared to attack her directly so the emperor sent envoys to her asking her to make peace. Although she knew that she had means enough that defeat in an attack by the combined forces of the three most powerful navies in the world was by no means certain, she realized that it was to her advantage to retire while she was ahead.
To that end, she appeared without warning at the residence of the governor-general of Canton to negotiate a peace agreement. Although negotiating with a woman as an equal was highly unusual for the Chinese at the time, the governor-general was willing to do it for fear of risking a long, bloody naval war with the vast pirate fleet under her command. Within, hours, Ching Shih and the governor-general arrived at a mutually beneficial arrangement.
In exchange for agreeing to give up their ships and their arms, Ching Shih and her men were given full amnesty and allowed to keep their plunder. Also, Ching Shih received assurances that any of her 17,000 men who wanted to join the Imperial Navy would be allowed to do so. She even managed to obtain a commission for a command of twenty ships for her lover, Chang Pao. Ching Shih herself retired from the pirate life at the tender age of 35 years old, married Chang Pao, and opened a gambling house which she ran until her death at the age of 69.