Nick Carroll: Did People Surf in China 1000 Years Ago?

23 Sep 2019 3 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer


The Incredible Tale of the Nong Chao Er

Everyone’s on about China these days. Our biggest trading partner is suddenly also a scary influencer! Weird thoughts of the inscrutable East abound. Who knows what to think?

Surfers, well we tend not to think much about China at all, except to maybe whinge about it making too many pop-out surfboards, or to worry about the Chinese taking up surfing: “Imagine how crowded it’ll get?”

We may have to add another thought to those.

An Italian surfer and academic has written an extraordinary book based on evidence he has uncovered of a thriving wave-riding culture in China’s Hangzhou delta, going back perhaps 1000 years.

The book’s title, Children Of The Tide, is a partial translation of nong chao er, the name given to the daring young men who took on “water treading” on the river bores of the region around AD 1000, carrying flags, performing all kinds of tricks, and astonishing the crowds who gathered to watch.

It was the last thing author Nicola Zanella — Nik for short — expected to find when his fascination for China led him to the Qiongzhu Temple, a famed Buddhist retreat in Yunan, about 600 km from the Chinese coast.

There, in a large space called the Precious Hall of the Great Hero, he suddenly came across “30 figures riding a green-blue wave, performing manoeuvres and standing on top of mythological animals”. The central figure was “a surfer in perfect sideways stance, riding a left-hander with a stoked grin on his face”.

Stunned, Nik asked the Abbott: were these surfers? Oh no, the Abbott assured Nik. I’ve seen surfers on TV. These are nong chao er.

The Abbott helped Nik inscribe the words in Chinese script, and Nik went digging. He was uniquely suited to this task. Nik learned to surf in Ravenna on Italy’s east coast, edited the local surf magazine SurfNews, and travelled the surfing world, looking for new spots to feature in his mag. “You guys already found all the good spots!” he told me, laughing. “I had to go to shitty spots!”

He’d also spent two years learning some of the skills of Chinese calligraphy, which helped his understanding of the many layered symbols in the language — simultaneously complex and quite clear in their meanings.

Nong chao er”, he learned, meant several different things at once. “Er” was young. “Nong” was to manipulate or play, to fool around with, perhaps even to deceive. “Chao” was the biggie: tide, or wave, connected to the moon, and the idea of rising and falling, even to orgasm. Woooo!

The first use of the term he could find was in a seventh century poem by Li Yi, a Tang Dynasty poet. Nik quotes the poem, “A Song From South Of The River”, in the book. It’s set near Hangzhou and tells of a woman married to a wealthy merchant who pays her little attention. As she gazes over the river, she thinks of this and wishes she’d married a nong chao er instead — the implication being, he might be more fun.

Still — who were the nong chao er? Further digging revealed them as a key part of the river’s Mid-Autumn Festival, based on the coming of the great river bore waves and held for hundreds of years from around the mid-ninth century. The Festival was classic Chinese pageantry and showmanship. Warships were arrayed, flags were flown, and thousands of people lined the river. 

Then came the nong chao er: “Hundreds of brave watermen from Wu, with unfastened hair and tattoos, holding ten coloured flags, race to the water at the sound of drums. They paddle against the flow, towards the oncoming waves, appearing and disappearing among the leviathan waves ten thousand ren (1 ren = 2.66 metres) long. Then they leap up, and perform a hundred manoeuvres without getting the tail of their flags even slightly wet. This is how they show off their skill. Hence the nobles reward them with silver prizes.”

Coastal fishing people had lived around Wu, the area around the river’s mouth, for thousands of years. Genetic links can be found between them and the people who eventually headed out into the Pacific, on migration to Melanesia and eventually Polynesia, the generally accepted home of what we’ve inherited as “surfing”.

Still, it kinda sounds familiar: long hair, tatts, surfing for prizemoney.

The nong chao er were celebrated, but not forever. Deaths on the river thanks to the massive waves led to a ban on “wave treading”. The ban didn’t stop them, but it changed their social status. By the 13th century, they were being referred to as outlaws, and by the 17th century, references to them had all but vanished.

Yet the fishermen continued to ride the river waves in secret all the way up to the 1980s, on long hardwood pintails without fins.

It’s a mind boggling story told brilliantly by Nik, who I think might have pulled off the near impossible and written a truly original book.

What I wonder is, what will Chinese people make of it?

They’re a people who are filled with pride in 5000 years of cultural depth.

They’re also spending over $100 million right now building a total of six wave pools, using tech basically modelled on the KS/WaveGarden foil method, and they’ve already recruited somewhere around 400 kids to surf teams, with future Olympics in mind.

Now, China has a wave-riding origin story all its own. Who knows where that will lead?

To buy a copy of Children Of The Tide, get a print version here or an e-book here.

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