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Photo of a mid-1700s Japanese woman misrepresented as a Chinese pirate

A photo of a 19th century women has been shared thousands of times on Facebook and other sites. When it’s actually traced back, experts found out that the woman in the photo is an Ainu from Hokkaido,

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Thousands of people have shared a black-and-white photo of a woman online, claiming it depicts Ching Shih, a Chinese pirate queen who operated in the early 19th century. However, that is not the case. Experts told AFP that the photo depicts an Ainu woman who lived on the Japanese island of Hokkaido in the early 20th century.

On July 23, 2022, a Facebook user in Australia uploaded the black-and-white photo of a woman.

The caption reads in part, “Ching Shih: A Prostitute Who Became History’s Most Powerful Pirate and Banned Rape In Her 70,000-Man Fleet.”

“However, none of the aforementioned American or European men were the most successful pirate-lord in history. Ching Shih, which literally means “Ching’s widow,” instead refers to a remarkable Asian woman.”

Cantonese speaker and notorious Chinese pirate Ching Shih (whose name means “wife of Ching”) ruled the waters off the coast of the province of Guangdong in the early nineteenth century.

By the time local pirate Ching I met Ching Shih, she was going by the name Shih Yang, a prostitute. She married him in 1801, and then after his death in 1807, she took over as leader of the Red Flag pirate fleet.

At her height, the 70,000 pirates under Ching Shih (also known as Cheng I Sao) on 1,200 ships outnumbered the Chinese imperial army and the Spanish armada combined.

She was also renowned for enforcing harsh laws on her pirate crew, including the death penalty for piratical offenses such as stealing from villagers or the communal treasury or committing sexual assaults on captives.

After accepting amnesty from the Qing dynasty’s government in 1810, the pirate queen retired and lived to the ripe old age of 69 before succumbing to natural causes in 1844.

After appearing with a similar claim here, here, here, and here on Facebook, here on Twitter, and here and here on TikTok, the same photo has been shared more than 18,000 times.

More than 54,000 people have shown their approval of a similar post on Instagram.

However, that is not true.

Using a reverse image search, we were able to locate this picture on the stock photo website Alamy, where we learned that the woman pictured is a member of the indigenous Ainu people of Hokkaido, Japan.

CPA Media, based in Thailand and owned by the British, has an extensive collection of both vintage and modern photographs of Asia that were used for the photo in question.

Pictures in History is an online image library that houses the company’s digitized collection.

We found the photo titled “Japan: Ainu woman, Hokkaido, c. 1900” when you searched for “Ainu woman” on our site.

Taken from the Pictures in History website, the image is shown below:

Managing director of CPA Media David Henley told AFP, “The woman in the picture is wearing Ainu costume, I can’t see any reason Ching Shih would be wearing this costume.”

Kazuyoshi Otsuka, an emeritus professor at Japan’s National Ethnology Museum in Osaka and author of the book “Ainu, Kaihin to Mizube no Tami” (Ainu: People of the Seashore and Waterside), has confirmed that the woman in the photograph is an Ainu.

Otsuka reported to AFP that the woman was “dressed in Ainu motif clothing, typical of the Iburi region of Hokkaido, which also includes Shiraoi.” This woman appears to be dressed in traditional Ainu attire, as evidenced by her choice of garments and jewelry.

Even before World War II, the town of Shirao—home to the National Ainu Museum—was a popular destination for those interested in the Ainu culture.

Otsuka elaborated, saying the photo was likely taken for a postcard sometime between the 1900s and the 1930s, spanning “from the end of the Meiji period to the beginning of the Showa period.”

He explained that the name was written in white on the upper-left part of the picture, as seen here on the website of Yahoo! Auctions Japan, and that an existing tourist postcard issued in Shiraoi shows the same female figure with the Japanese caption ” (Asako Miyamoto).

A snapshot of the poscard can be seen below, courtesy of Yahoo! Auctions Japan:

The professor believes the woman to be related to Ekashimatoku Miyamoto (1876-1958), a notable Ainu elder, but notes that it is “difficult at this point to determine whether she was the elder’s daughter or a relative or others.”

Given the discrepancy in dates, Otsuka concluded that the claim that the woman in the photo was the Chinese pirate queen Ching Shih should be discounted.