Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Chinese Pirate Flags - Goddesses and Bats


As mentioned before I’ve just finished a piece on pirates of the South China Seas for the excellent Asia Literary Review – so the last few months have been spent either researching the history of pirates across the region from China to Borneo, the Philippines to Malaysia and everywhere in between. One thing I’d never thought about before was what flag pirates sailed under back then – not the Jolly Roger (either as a skull and crossbones or skull and crossed swords) that’s for sure. So I thought worth a bit of investigation.

Actually they had a variety of flags and sometimes no flags – they were pirates after all so rules were a bit of an anathema to them in general. Most just used a colour to identify themselves to each other within a fleet. But one pirate Ching Yih – who died in 1807 by which time he’d built up a pretty impressive pirate armada of about 80,000 men and women comprising a fleet of 800 large ships and about 1,000 smaller boats - had an elaborate flag adorned with the mythical empress of heaven Tien Hou Sheng, the calmer of storms and a goddess to fishermen in southern China. The Goddess is surrounded by bats, a symbol of good luck.


It’s a very good flag – apparently one remains in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (one of the few good school day trips we used to get at my Comprehensive - miles better than going to crappy Chessington Zoo to get beaten up by South London schoolies or boring Calais to buy yet another flick knife and packets of bangers).

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