Ching Shih is arguably the most successful pirate in history. With a fleet of 1800 ships and 80,000 crew members, Shih terrorized the South China Sea and challenged the might of national navies, including the British Royal Navy. Rather than die an epic death in a fearsome battle at sea, Shih passed away at the age of 69, a supremely wealthy owner of a gambling house owner, after coming to an agreement with the Qing Dynasty of China for amnesty.
Sounds pretty cool, right?
If you’re not already familiar with Ching Shih, here’s another interesting little tidbit: Shih was a Cantonese prostitute, working at a brothel when she was captured by pirates. Shih’s birthname was Shi Xianggu, but, after her husband Cheng I, a notorious pirate, passed away, she became known as Ching Shih, which means “Cheng’s widow.”
Shih’s life reads like an adventure novel, and she’s appeared in numerous forms of pop culture. The famed author Jorge Luis Borges wrote a semi-fictionalized account of her life in the short story The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate. In 2003, director Ermanno Olmi made a film based on Borges’ story, called Singing Behind Screens, which had a limited release in Europe. In 2006, Ching Shih was depicted as a demon-fighter in the graphic novel Afterlife. Mistress Ching, one of the nine pirate lords in the third Pirates of the Caribbean film, is the closest Shih has gotten to an appearance in modern, mainstream pop culture.
Ching Shih’s story is probably best told through television, a Netflix or premium channel epic a lá Game of Thrones or Spartacus. Epics are extremely popular right now, with new shows constantly popping up to cash in on the hype. Fortunately, it looks like Hollywood has heard of this badass lady pirate. Gladiator co-writer and producer David Franzoni has been tapped to write and produce Red Flag, a series starring Maggie Q, about Ching Shih’s life. The show is slated to begin filming in fall, but, as of this writing, has not yet announced a network.
So what makes this story more deserving than others to get the premium channel TV show treatment? Surely Black Sails, the Starz series, has the pirate theme covered. History also has thousands of other incredible figures whose lives could entertain us for multiple seasons’ worth of episodes. Here are a few of my thoughts:
- Pirates are cool. The success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (yes, they’re making another one) should be evidence enough. But from Captain Hook, to Long John Silver, to Blackbeard, pirates have captivated generations. Ching Shih’s strict code of laws would be best brought to life by a network like HBO, which wouldn’t shy away from the occasional bloody punishment for rule breakers.
- Location, location, location. The South China Sea setting will feel like a completely different world for many Americans (likely the target audience for the show) who may be unfamiliar with that region of the world. Filming for Red Flag will take place in Malaysia, and should make for some incredible scenery. The relatively untapped location and time period will give the creators a lot of source material to bring the show to life, through culture, clothing, traditions, and lifestyles of the people who lived during that time.
- Strong female characters are in vogue. From Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, to Arya and Daenerys in Game of Thrones, to Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games, the number of incredible strong female characters have hit a high point and show no signs of stopping. Why not add a historical badass to the group?
- Diversity. Maggie Q, the star of Red Flag, is half-Vietnamese. This show has an enormous potential for a diverse cast, and can be used to showcase the talents of Asian actors, who are commonly relegated to one-dimensional supporting roles. Red Flag’s listing does have two white men, Dylan McDermott and François Arnaud, on the billing as Maggie Q’s costars. It’s not ideal, but until we see more, I’m going to hold out hope that we’ll see a diverse cast with plenty of complex, meaningful characters of color.
- There’s room for artistic license. While we know some things about Ching Shih’s life, we’re missing a lot of the details. Her story gives the creators a shell and a main storyline to follow, but also allows them room to play with the characters and add their own flair and drama to the series. Done right, the creators can use this to tell an engaging story that will keep viewers coming back week after week.
Ching Shih was a fascinating woman, who ended up becoming one of the most successful pirates in history. She commanded respect and was feared by her enemies. Red Flag has the potential to be the television show that Ching Shih deserves, but it will be some time before we see if it does.