Once a month here on the Molten Sulfur Blog, I run content taken from our book Archive: Historical People, Places, and Events for RPGs. This post is one of eighty entries in Archive, each more gameable than the last!
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From Prostitute to Pirate Queen
Ching Shih was born in 1775 in the Chinese province of Guangdong, though not under that name. Little is known about her early life. Even her birth name is uncertain, though some sources claim it was Shi Xianggu. She was once a prostitute in a brothel where she gained the attention of a renowned pirate, Zheng Yi. He was the commander of the Red Flag Fleet and in 1801, he asked her to marry him. She agreed and gained some power in the Red Flags. When Zheng Yi passed away in 1807, his once-prostitute wife took up the name Ching Shih, which roughly translates to “widow of Zheng”.
After her husband's death, Ching Shih took command of the Red Flag Fleet. Some of Zheng Yi's fleet captains tried to leave, but she brought them to heel. She wasn’t the same kind of leader her husband was. Where he was brash and loud, she was quiet and calculating. She married her late husband’s right-hand man, Cheung Po, to cement her rule. Cheung Po was widely respected among the crew and relatively easy to manipulate, since he began his life of piracy as an illiterate fisherman’s son.
Though she had to work through Cheung Po, Ching Shih united many ruthless pirate fleets under the Red Flag banner. Soon her fleet eclipsed the size of all other pirate groups. Every ship, no matter the size, displayed a code of conduct in the common area. The edict stated that Ching Shih had to approve all attacks beforehand. Violators would be beheaded. All loot would be given to superiors to be distributed. Disobeying this rule once would get you severely beaten. Twice would get you dead. Deserters or those who took shore leave without prior permission would have their ears cut off for their first offense, and death for their second. Raping a female captive meant a beheading, and consensual sex with a female captive without permission also meant a beheading for the pirate and boots of lead for the captive. If a pirate wanted sex with a female prisoner without facing punishment, he’d have to take her as his wife and remain faithful and kind to her, or else... beheading.
Though her pirate code wasn’t what the crew was used to, the Red Flags were practically unstoppable under Ching Shih’s leadership. The Chinese government, eventually with the aid of the Portuguese and British navies, attempted to isolate and kill her several times. They failed. But the navies’ persistence was frustrating for Ching Shih, who did want to settle down some day. So she offered to surrender, but only after months of bargaining with the government. With all their failed assaults against her, the authorities were desperate to put an end to her reign. So Ching Shih was able to negotiate a glamorous retirement in which she kept the treasure she’d collected and gained amnesty for herself and her crew. She spent the rest of her life running a brothel and gambling den. She died at age 69.
Ching Shih in Play
Ching Shih might make an excellent villain at your table because, while obviously a bad person, she's relatable. As an enemy, Ching Shih might raid towns your party is trying to protect. Defeated PCs might have to bargain with the pirate queen for their lives. In extreme cases, she might offer them their freedom only if they join her crew. PCs would have to choose between the safer path of jumping ship when they get the chance and the riskier road of manipulating Ching Shih's loyal crew into mutiny. Black-hearted PCs might find the pirate queen a valuable patron or questgiver. She might send them on scouting missions against ports she intends to raid, expeditions to recover lost artifacts, or even give them command of their own ship. Ching Shih also works as backstory – a legendary figure whose lost buried treasure still lures adventurers with the promise of gold.
Also, I'm on the latest episode of the DiceGeeks podcast! Matt and I dive into an outlaw swamp in Texas, witness palace intrigue in medieval Mali, and see what destruction the mythical dragon hoard from the Völsunga saga has wrought. If you prefer to consume Molten Sulfur's sweet, sweet history content in conversational audio, this should be right up your alley!