Chinese pirate (1775-1844). A former employee of a Cantonese floating brothel, she was initiated into piracy after marrying Cheng I, the leader of the Kwangtung Confederacy of pirates. In 1804, the Chengs organized the pirate bands into a confederation of six fleets, with about 70,000 men, 200 ocean-going junks, 600-800 coastal junks, and a number of river boats. They also imposed rules providing procedures for internal affairs, vessel registration, and distribution of spoils, as well as penalizing desertion, pilfering, mutiny, and rape.

When Cheng I was swept overboard in a gale in 1807, Cheng Shih was able to successfully take over the operation, thanks to the support of her in-laws, her full participation in piracy, and her appointment of Chang Pao, Cheng I's adopted son, as her lieutenant. She consolidated her position by taking Chang Pao as her lover, and later, as her husband.

Under Cheng Shih's leadership, the Confederacy enjoyed a period of incredible success, raiding coastal towns, ransoming ships and people, and selling protection (certificates of protection could be bought at pirate offices in Canton and Macao!). The pirates regularly defeated government ships sent to capture them -- many government patrols preferred to sabotage their own ships rather than face the Confederacy. When a new provincial governor-general tried to embargo coastal movement, the Confederacy started attacking inland targets, while continuing their activities against foreign traders. The East India Company hired out seven warships to the Chinese government, but after blockading Cheng Shih's forces, a change in wind direction forced the government fleet to scatter and let the pirates escape again.

Finally, in 1810, the government offered the pirates amnesty, and Cheng Shih, realizing that the Confederacy needed political support to survive, decided to negotiate. In a dramatic move, she approached the governor-general's palace in Canton accompanied by 30 pirate women and children. After two days of negotiations, terms were agreed to that would allow any pirate who accepted amnesty to keep their loot and receive a place in the imperial bureaucracy. Over 17,000 pirates accepted the offer, surrendering with over 200 junks. Chang Pao became a naval mandarin in Fukien province and kept 20 junks of his own.

After Chang Pao died in 1822, Cheng Shih returned to Canton, where she ran a gambling house until her death.

Research from GURPS Who's Who 2, compiled by Phil Masters, "Cheng Shih" by Nelson Cunnington, pp. 82-83.

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