Photo of Japan's indigenous Ainu woman misrepresented as 'Chinese pirate queen Ching Shih'

A black-and-white photo of a woman has been shared thousands of times in social media posts that claim it shows the Chinese pirate queen Ching Shih, who was active in the early 19th century. However, the claim is false. The photo actually shows an indigenous Ainu woman who lived in the Japanese island of Hokkaido, and it was likely taken in the early 20th century, experts told AFP.

The black-and-white photo of a woman was shared by an Australia-based Facebook user here on July 23, 2022.

"Ching Shih: A Prostitute Who Became History’s Most Powerful Pirate And Banned Rape In Her 70,000-Man Fleet," the caption partly reads.

"Contrary to these popular ideas, the most successful pirate-lord in recorded history was not any of the previously mentioned American or European men. Instead, she was an extraordinary Asian woman who is known today by the name Ching Shih, which simply translates to 'Ching's widow'."

Screenshot of the misleading post, taken on August 25, 2022

Chinese pirate Ching Shih -- whose name means "wife of Ching" in Cantonese -- dominated the coast of the southeeastern Chinese province of Guangdong in the first decade of the 19th century.

Ching Shih was a prostitute named Shih Yang when she met local pirate Ching I, or Cheng I. After marrying him in 1801, she joined her husband to rule the Red Flag pirate fleet, and, following his death in 1807, she secured her position as their leader.

At the height of her power, Ching Shih -- also called as Cheng I Sao, or "wife of Cheng I"-- led around 70,000 pirates aboard 1,200 vessels, dwarfing the Chinese imperial army and the Spanish armada.

She was also famous for maintaining a strict code of laws for her pirates: stealing from the villagers or from the communal treasury and sexual assaults against captives were punishable by death.

The pirate queen retired in 1810 after accepting an amnesty offer from the Qing dynasty's government and died of natural causes in 1844 at the age of 69.

The same photo has been shared more than 18,000 times after it appeared alongside a similar claim here, here, here and here on Facebook, as well as here on Twitter, and on TikTok here and here.

A similar post was uploaded on Instagram here, where it has garnered more than 54,000 likes.

However, the claim is false.

A reverse image search on the photo and found the image on the stock photo website Alamy, identifying the woman as a member of the Ainu, an indigenous ethnic group who primarily live in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

The photo is credited to CPA Media, a British-owned, Thailand-based company that has a stock library of historical and contemporary images from Asia.

The company has also digitised their collection in an online image library called "Pictures in History".

Typing the keywords "Ainu woman" on their website here, AFP found the photo with a title: "Japan: Ainu woman, Hokkaido, c. 1900".

Below is a screenshot of the photo on the Pictures in History website:

Screenshot of the photo on the Pictures in History website

When contacted by AFP, David Henley, managing director of CPA Media, wrote: "The woman in the picture is wearing Ainu costume, I can't see any reason Ching Shih would be wearing this costume."

The Ainu

Kazuyoshi Otsuka, an emeritus professor at the National Ethnology Museum, in the Japanese city of Osaka, and the author of the book "Ainu, Kaihin to Mizube no Tami" (Ainu: People of the Seashore and Waterside), confirmed that the picture shows an Ainu woman.

The woman was "wearing Ainu motif clothing, which is common in the Iburi region of Hokkaido, including Shiraoi," Otsuka told AFP. "The clothing and jewelry worn by the woman in this photograph suggest that she is wearing formal dress of Ainu."

The town of Shiraoi, which is now the location of the National Ainu Museum, has long been a centre for Ainu-related tourism even before World War II.

Otsuka went on to say the photograph was likely taken between the 1900s and the 1930s -- "from the end of the Meiji period to the beginning of the Showa period" -- for a tourist postcard.

"An extant tourist postcard issued in Shiraoi shows the same female figure with Japanese caption '宮本アサ子' (Asako Miyamoto)," he explained, pointing out the name was written in white on the upper-left part of the picture, seen here on the website of Yahoo! Auctions Japan.

Below is a screenshot of the tourist poscard on Yahoo! Auctions Japan:

Screenshot of the tourist poscard on Yahoo! Auctions Japan

The woman is believed to related to Ekashimatoku Miyamoto (1876-1958), a prominent Ainu elder, the professor said, "but it is difficult at this point to determine whether she was the elder's daughter or a relative or others."

Otsuka concluded the claim that the woman in the photo was the Chinese pirate queen Ching Shih did not "match chronologically" and "the relation should be ruled out".