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The image leaps right off the page, or electric screen, to the surf-obsessed eye. It’s clearly a man surfing a wave. Sure, he’s standing on the back of a fish. But the stance, the positioning, it’s unmistakable. The man is surfing. That the surfing man was carved into a bas relief in a Zen monastery along the Silk Road in China’s Yunnan Province hundreds of miles from the sea, and dated to 1880, well, that raises some pretty interesting questions about what, exactly, the relief was meant to convey.

For Nik Zanella, who coaches surfing in China and encountered that relief on a trip in 2006, it was quite clear that the relief depicted an unknown, to the West, anyway, form of surfing that seemingly originated independently from Polynesia, normally considered the birthplace of surfing. Modern surfing was, for the most part, exported around the globe by Hawaiians in the early 20th century, especially by Olympian swimmer and surf celebrity Duke Kahanamoku. Yet, here was a carving of Chinese surfers, far from the ocean, decades before most outside of Hawaii had heard of the practice.

The relief that blew Zanella’s mind.

Zanella was fascinated and dove headfirst into researching this branch of the waveriding tree.

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After years of research, he’s written a book, “Children of the Tide,” that explores a historic surfing culture that largely escaped notice. A resident of the monastery told Zanella the practice had a name: Nong Chao Er (弄潮儿), or “Children of the Tide.” He pointed Zanella to the ancient city of Hangzhou, on the banks of the Qiantang River. The Qiantang boasts one of the most powerful tidal bore waves on the planet, a wave called the “Silver Dragon,” today. During certain tidal swings from Hangzhou Bay, a tidal push forms a series of waves as large as six feet in height that peel for dozens of miles along the river’s banks. And apparently, locals had been surfing the wave for centuries.

Zanella pored through historical manuscripts, looking for any mention of something that sounded like surfing. References to playing with the tide and swimming in the waves stretched back nearly 1,000 years. Like this passage Zanella found from 1290:

“Hundreds of brave watermen from Wu, with unfastened hair and tattoos, holding ten colored flags, racing to the water at the sound of drums. They paddle against the flow, towards the oncoming waves, appearing and disappearing among the leviathan waves … Then they leap up, and perform a hundred maneuvers without getting the tail of their flags even slightly wet.”

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Eventually, Zanella learned that Chinese fisherman in Hangzou had been surfing the Qiantang, totally oblivious to ocean surfing going on in the rest of the world, until the practice died out in the 1980s.

We talked with Zanella about what he learned when researching his book. An excerpt of the book follows.

AJ: What did you first think when you saw the relief in the monastery? Did you immediately assume it was surfing? Or did you piece that together later? Is that temple anywhere near the river bore wave?
NZ: I was blown away. I knew that in 1880, when the sculptor created those statues, surfing hadn’t yet bridged the gap between Polynesia and the West. How could [the sculptor] so realistically depict the biodynamics of our sport, if he had never seen it? Duke Kahanamoku, commonly regarded as the pollinator of modern surfing, was born in 1890. So this wall was telling a totally different story. At that time I had no idea of what this story was about and where the research would have taken me. I had heard of the tidal bore in Hangzhou, seen some videos of people running away from it, cars and people being eaten alive by it, but I had no idea there was a waveriding culture behind it.

Did you uncover evidence of ancient Chinese surfing in the ocean?
No, I haven’t found any traces of the Nong Chao Er operating in the ocean so far. The first documented ocean surfing is dated 1985 by Australian Peter Drouyn, who was hired by the central government in the first surf experiment in Hainan.

silver dragon river bore wave

When the Silver Dragon roars, it draws a huge, non-surfing these days, crowd.

How common is the knowledge of the history and practice of Nong Chao Er among the Chinese population?
The Nong Chao Er and their ‘red flags’ are fairly popular. Some of the poems I quoted in the book, the one by Pang Lan, for example, are learned by heart in school. Even president Xi quoted it in a few of his speeches. They know they were riding the ‘Tide Head’ but they don’t know that this is a form of waveriding. They don’t know that this poem is possibly the oldest written description of surfing.

How long, in your estimation, has the practice been going on in China?
We know that they were riding waves from the 11th century (northern Song Dynasty) until the late 1980s.

In the book you mention the wood boards the surfers made and rode into the 1980s. Are there no surfers left today? How did they learn to make the boards?
This is a topic I’m researching recently but there are no Nong Chao Er active today. I don’t want to give out too much before I have solid evidence of what is (or was) happening. What I know is that they used to ride the tide until the late 1980s, totally uninfluenced by our version of surfing. From interviews I conducted, they rode three-meter-long boards made of Fir Wood. Pointy at both ends without fins. I still haven’t gone deep enough in this subject. The ’80s are not so far away. I’m sure there are still people that know how those boards were made and used. It would be great to do a documentary or a film on all this parallel version of wave-riding.

In the below excerpt, Zanella and a small crew of European surfers have traveled to China to try to surf the river bore wave.

***

“Big-headed carp. Don’t they taste like mud?” I asked a slim, middle-aged and weather-faced fish-stall owner in my best Mandarin. He was wearing a greasy green shirt and mud-stained khaki trousers. His stall, on the outskirts of the market, seemed perfect for a discrete conversation. “Look at my treasures,” he replied, pointing at two teenage boys, teasing the family’s scruffy dog with a bamboo stick. “They all grew up on these big-heads. The meat is fat and tasty. No mud flavors. It sells for three times this price in restaurants downtown. Want to buy one?” “And how do you cook it?” “Just soak it in vinegar and ginger, and boil it.”

Ice now broken, the fisherman offered me his callous hand and a cigarette. I accepted. It’s hard, indeed impolite, to resist nicotine in China, and this is tough for health-conscious surfers. A saying goes: ‘A smoke after dinner will make you live longer than an immortal saint’. The fisherman introduced himself as Mr. Wu. His surname alone identified him as a local and inspired me to continue.

“Wu… an original nong chao er?” I said. Mr. Wu coughed out a cloud of smoke, then planted his eyes into mine. “How does a foreign friend know about this old story?” I quickly pulled out my moleskin and quoted Pan Lang’s poem, my mantra for the last two years, “The children of the tide go towards the head of the wave and stand up. They hold a red flag that never gets wet.” Mr. Wu listened with a knowing smile, looked at me in amazement, then lowered his eyes. “Those times are long gone,” he said, now reflective. “The river has changed too much for those red flags,” his tone now sad. “What do you mean by that?” I asked. “Red flags are everywhere in China.” “When I was their age,” he said, pointing towards his kids, “all sorts of oceanic fish would end up in our nets. Mud crabs, snappers, even sharks sometimes. But after all the development and the dredging, the channels became muddy and shallow. The water is fresh now, even at high tide. And we have turned from open water fishermen to riverside rats.”

“And what about the wave? Did you guys ride it like the nong chao er?” Mr. Wu looked around, checking if anyone was listening. Most of their trade happens at dawn. It was 8.00 am and the market was now nearly empty. “The tide’s head was much taller. So tall it climbed all the way to the top of the mud bank. My dad taught us to tread waves on a wood plank, riding on our bellies. He used to say a long time ago they rode standing and had festivals and competitions. But it was only some families that did it, and those skills were lost and the practice was banned many times. But the authorities were not always watching, and some that did would tolerate the playing, so we used to grab a wood plank and slide on our bellies for fun, jumping in front of the wave from the shallows. It was underground and made us feel alive. Only a few of us did it. But the river changed too much. These concrete walls killed all the fun. Some got trapped while treading waves, drowning of a terrible death. Then the authorities would not tolerate it “The nong chao er died out a long time ago.”

Modern surfing comes to Hangzou.

He looked at me quizzically. “But why are you asking all of this? Are you guys those foreigners?” “What foreigners?” “Everyone is talking about it. A group of laowai is in town with boards to tame the tide’s head.” I proudly admitted, “Yes that’s us. We are nong chao er, like you. We flew over from Europe for this.” He laughed nervously. “You should have been here 30 years ago! Playing was tolerated until the 1980s. Then they shut us down after too many accidents. It all became illegal. Chasing the wave is illegal. Dying is illegal. You’ll get in trouble.”

Callahan and the whole team now arrived at the market. Mr. Wu checked them out, then turned to me, speaking quietly and directly. “I know one place where you can ride in secret. There’s a construction plant two kilometers east from here on the south bank. They employ many foreigners. The guards are used to laowai (foreigners in Chinese) in the property and their boss has lunch at 12 every day. Show up at five past 12 and tell them you are from the training center. If they open the gates, you’ll be safe. Just drive along the lower path so they don’t see you. There’s a jetty. The wave will hit at 12:30. The banks are shallow for three kilometers along that side, too shallow for the police boats. Fishermen don’t operate in that area. Stick to the south shore where you can tread waves. That’s a place we used to play. Good luck.”

I thanked Mr Wu profusely, grabbed a few 100 yuan bills and tried to slide them inside his pocket. But he refused vigorously, “Nong chao er have always been rebels. May the Dragon King be with you,” he said, then disappeared towards his boat.

Photos courtesy Zanella.