The Forgotten Surfers of 10th Century China

Jason Lock

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Updated 1200d ago

Tracing the footprint of surfing through history is no easy task. Digging into long forgotten accounts of wave riding, chasing meager bread crumbs across the globe can yield mixed results. But, did you ever expect a rich history of surfing to emanate out of 10th Century China?

Nik Zanella has spent years deciphering ancient Chinese poems and texts to piece together a past-time that thrived in the Far East's Song Dynasty, from 960 to 1279. Early surfers would ride the country's Qiantang river as part of a ritual to help appease the God of the Tide (or, the Dragon King) – and for the entertainment of the Emperor.

Where to Surf in China

It wasn't long until the practice was banned and the sport lost to the ebbing of time. But Nik has diligently pieced together the remarkable story in his new book Children of the Tide, which tells the story of those early wave riders.

Here, we chatted through the book with Nik, including how to track 5,000 years worth of history, filtering through clues and the long path to understanding the forgotten surfers of ancient China.

Tell us a bit about Children of the Tide, how did the project start?
NZ: It’s a long love affair. I took Chinese language and literature in university in 1988, and have been surfing since the mid 80s. I spent the last decade working at surf development projects in China, lately coaching part of the National Surfing Team.

So my two passions, China and surfing, always went hand-in-hand. I started working on the book in 2014 but the research took off 10-years before that. Travelling to China, I kept bumping into traces of wave-riding and wave-watching in Chinese art and literature.

In 2006 I found the Surfing Buddhas of Kunming inside a monastery, while trekking in Yunnan province. The temple’s wall showed this clay bas-relief of about 30 surfers, dated 1880. This was decades before surfing spread from Polynesia to the West.

Who were they and why were they doing this? How could the sculptor, born at the beginning of the 19th Century in southwest China, so realistically depict surfing if he had not seen surfing? I spoke with the temple’s Abbott and received the key-words that got me going. The key words were 弄潮儿 (Children of the Tide) and most of my research has been about looking for them through 5,000-years of documented history and literature.

The God of the Tide.

The God of the Tide.

I think a lot of readers would be surprised that there was surfing in China in the 10th Century, any idea what surfing looked like then?
I’m not too sure about them riding waves in the 10th century. That is when the Children of the Tide were first mentioned, but I found no evidence of wave riding in that era.

Wave riding became an important ritual only during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) peaking in the 12th-13th century. The sources from the Song are the most abundant. The setting is peculiar. The Qiantang river and its wide delta creates the world largest tidal bore, a wave up to 5 metres high

Several reports about “expert watermen from Wu, with short hair and tattoo, paddling towards oncoming waves and standing up, performing hundreds of tricks, dancing with the white water”, for the pleasure of the Emperor and the crowd during the mid autumn festival, when the wave was at its biggest.

The setting is peculiar. The Qiantang river and its wide delta creates the world largest tidal bore, a wave up to 5 metres high, climbing the silty delta for over 50 km at every low tide, often inundating the land around its fortified banks, but constituting a predictable and reliable playground for this early form of wave-riding.

So, it's believed surfing in China peaked in the Song Dynasty, right? What do you know about that era and why do you think surfing picked up then?
We know a lot about the Song. It was a vibrant open-minded society in all aspects. Hangzhou was one of the richest towns on the planet, hosting over one million inhabitants, at the forefront of art, medicine and technology. Sports like climbing, polo, boat-racing, swimming and even a local version of soccer were all practised. Wave riding could fit right in this cultural mood.

Was this an act steeped in religion?
It was religion and free surfing as well. At that stage, wave riding was most likely the prerogative of the Wu people, boatman living in southern China since prehistoric times. There’s several legends revolving about the wave and the people taming it.

Several sources compare them to Buddhist monks. The act of ‘treading waves' (踏浪 talang in Chinese) was mainly associated with the God of the Tide (also known as the Dragon King). By offering their bodies to the tidal wave, the Children of the Tide could placate the God's raging soul and prevent calamities.

Note that the God of Tide is still venerated in the Delta area. This ritual was performed during the Mid Autumn Festival, when the wave is at its biggest and the emperor would commission a sumptuous military parade that culminated with the Children of the Tide performing on the tidal bore. But there clearly was a recreational aspect to this, and the practice was continued, beyond the official rite, for the pure joy of riding waves.

Surfing Buddha riding a carp, found i the 10,000 Buddhas temple in Honk Kong.

Surfing Buddha riding a carp, found i the 10,000 Buddhas temple in Honk Kong.

© 2022 - Nik Zanella.

Crazy that we're learning about this now, but when people talk about surfing in China, it's not so mainstream and we don't hear about it in a historical context that much, why do you think that is?
The activity did take off and lasted quite a while actually, it was banned many times but local fishermen kept riding the wave in secret. The activity faded because of environmental and social problems.

First of all, risking your life for fun was not considered morally acceptable by the regency, who used the expertise of the Children of the Tide to perform rites, but couldn’t stand the recreational, dangerous side of the activity and policed free-surfing almost to extinction.

The other reason of it fading was the river became increasingly fortified. Most mud banks disappeared and access became dangerous.

What were people riding?
Bodysurfing, riding on pieces of wood, canoes and even sailboats. One poem in particular speaks about the “fish of the god of the tide”, and that’s why the surfing buddhas are depicted riding carps, a sacred fish. Fishermen from the area confirm that small rowing boats and planks of wood were used until the recent past.

A view of the Qiantang River in China etched onto a silk fan.

A view of the Qiantang River in China etched onto a silk fan.

To piece together the fractured history of surfing in China, you had to translate poems and old texts – how difficult was this to put together?
Traditional Chinese, the language of written literature, is not easy to deal with but it had been my major during university.

Living in China, I had access to teachers and experts. My wife Yang Li has an MA in Chinese History, we both love Hangzhou and that dynasty. I slowly collected relevant pieces of literature, translated them, double check with competent people, then did philologic work on the key words.

That is what the core chapters revolve around and that took the longest time. But the book is not an essay. All the research is woven into a narration that starts in dynastic times and reaches the present. It’s the story of the Children of the Tide and how their story somehow influenced modern Chinese surfing.

The annual Battle at the Silver Dragon on the river still goes ahead. Yes, that's a tidal bore...

The annual Battle at the Silver Dragon on the river still goes ahead. Yes, that's a tidal bore...

What made you want to document this? I don’t think anyone’s ever brought this to life before, or even knew it existed.
I think it is a great story that wants to be told. I sometimes feel like the story is using me to come alive. It is a different, fascinating, beginning of our sport.

I guess we knew about James King writing about Hawaiian’s surfing in 1779, and surfing was mentioned in Hawaiian language ten years earlier, but this totally pre dates that. China – the first surfing nation?!
I don’t think so. The Polynesians were most likely standing up on boards before the Children of the Tide. And the Peruvians with the Caballitos de Totora pre-date both. So asking ‘who did what first’ is not the right way to put it. What’s important here is that the Chinese were the first to write about it.

Children of the Tide is now available HERE or by searching for it on Amazon.