Yasuke, Netflix's upcoming anime, will be many viewers' first introduction to a real figure in Japanese history. Yasuke was a real samurai -- one of Oda Nobunaga's retainers. Despite Japan's incredibly storied history, there are few anime that attempt to accurately represent that history on screen. While Yasuke will no doubt embellish the story for dramatic effect, it is grounded in real events that transpired in Japan's past -- hopefully.
With that said, there are numerous other figures in history who would make fascinating central characters in an anime. One of the best isn't even a Japanese figure but a Chinese one. Ching Shih is not a name many people recognize, yet in her lifetime, she assembled one of the largest pirate fleets in history. Forget Blackbeard -- Shih was such a queen of pirates she actually managed to retire and enjoy her wealth. The fact there isn't yet an anime about Ching Shih is a travesty.
Who Was Ching Shih?
To briefly summarize the complex life of one of the world's greatest pirates, Ching Shih, born Shih Yang, was born in 1775 in the Chinese province of Guangdong. She made a living as a concubine until 1801 when she married Cheng I, the heir to a family of pirates whose reign on the high seas dated back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The marriage partially served as a business contract. Cheng I saw potential in Shih's abilities to manipulate and coerce people to act in her best interests.
Ching Shih soon became an instrumental part of Cheng's pirate crew. The two used their reputation and coercion abilities to induce a legion of smaller ships to join their fleet. By the time of Cheng's death in 1807, they had amassed a fleet of 400 ships and 70,000 men. Ching Shih effortlessly took full command of the ship, using her husband's legacy as well as her own diplomatic skills and charisma to retain control of Cheng's ships while expanding even further. While Cheng and Shih had an adoptive child, she retained control over him by sharing power and engaging in a sexual relationship.
Shih retained command over her legions by sharing power and profits, making it beneficial to all parties involved to work together. Even rivals were forced to admit her brilliance and cunning, thus establishing her greater authority. They'd raid government bases and ships while extorting coastal cities. In effect, Shih conquered the South Sea, controlling all trade while destroying any effort to break her control over the Red Flag Fleet. The Chinese government did indeed try to break up her power. The Chinese Navy failed to overwhelm Shih's forces multiple times.
It was the Portuguese Navy that won several smaller skirmishes against Shih, which led her to mediate with the Chinese and Portuguese governments for a pardon. She negotiated that the majority of her pirates retain their stolen goods, never saw any prison time, and that she got to marry her adoptive son. And it worked. Shih managed to retire from piracy extremely wealthy, serve as a military advisor during the Opium War. Upon her death by natural causes at the age of 69, she was simultaneously running a gambling house while remaining involved in salt trading.
Why is Ching Shih a Fascinating Subject for an Anime?
Obviously, Ching Shih is a fascinating figure historically. With the upcoming anime Yasuke, the door should be open to more historical stories showcasing incredible people whom history has often overlooked. Undeniably, the story of a Black samurai in feudal Japan is more important, especially in an era when people are noticing the obvious lack of Black characters in mainstream anime. There are tons of anime about compelling female characters.
However, Ching Shih, much like Yasuke, was a real person who succeeded in a system that actively worked against minorities succeeding. Despite sexist power structures in 18th and 19th Century China, Shih rose above all limitations and became one of the most powerful women in China.
There are several historical figures who might be a mainstay in some cultures but are overlooked in others. Yasuke and Ching Shih are fascinating figures in history whom American audiences might never learn about. Articles online, though informative, can only provide so much insight on the historical context surrounding these people.
Even inaccurate portrayals of history can help people learn about real events. Many people learned about William Wallace and the Battle of Thermopylae first through films like Braveheart and 300. The films aren't historically accurate at all, but they offer a starting point. These people existed and have stories behind them. Anime like Yasuke adapting historical events can provide a similar stepping stone to students of history -- though hopefully more akin to the truth than Braveheart.