Review: 'Children of the Tide' by Nik Zanella
For decades it was assumed that surfing could trace its lineage back to the Polynesians, specifically those who inhabited Hawaii and Tahiti. And while it's true the modern interpretation of surfing owes much to those Polynesian roots, the history of wave riding is more complex than first thought.
For instance, we now know Peruvians rode their caballitos de totoras (reed watercraft) on waves as far back as 3,000 BC, two centuries before the Polynesians sailed across the Pacific Ocean to settle Hawaii and Tahiti.
For the ancient Peruvians, however, wave-riding was utilitarian, it simply provided a shoreward boost for returning anchovy fisherman. It occupied a lowly station in Peruvian civil life and wasn't celebrated the same way as the Polynesians. It was surfing, but not as we know it.
Tom Wegener is a keen student of surfing history. Always has been. As a teenager in Palos Verdes, California, he found little joy in modern boards, instead riding longboards, those old dinosaurs that almost became extinct during the shortboard revolution.
Since then, Tom's curiousity has led him down many paths: he's studied the ancient Hawaiians, experimented with various materials, and even done a PhD on the sustainability of the surf industry.
In 2014, Tom re-connected with an old Japanese friend who'd traced surfing in Japan back to at least 1821 - well before Westerners saw it in Polynesia. Called 'itako' it's a form of wave riding indigenuous to Japan.
More recently, it's been discovered that China also had an ancient form of wave riding, something that arose independently from the Polynesians, or the Peruvians and Japanese for that matter. Though 'wave treading' was done on the tidal bore of the Qiantang River and not the ocean, it's undoubtedly a form of surfing, one that was hitherto unknown until Italian surfer and Chinese scholar Nik Zanella found evidence of it.
Zanella wrote about his discovery in the recently-published 'Children of the Tide'. Tom Wegener eagerly read about the new discovery and wrote the following review.
The year is 1270 AD. It is high summer in the city of Hangzhou, capital of the Chinese empire, the most populous and advanced city on Earth at the time. The summer solstice celebrations are in full swing and the emperor Duzong watches over his domain from the still standing Six Harmonies Pagoda. The attention of the city is brought to the edge of the river as the climax of the year’s celebration is due to appear.
Swirling and boiling on the horizon at the mouth of the great Qiantang River, the Silver Dragon wakens and begins its march towards the city preceded by a roaring thunder. In the river a hundred or more 'Children of the Tide' wait on their surf craft for the world’s largest tidal bore. They will catch the 2 to 5 metre high wave which stretches a kilometre across the river, and perform acrobatics, for the pleasure of the crowd and the emperor.
The story of ‘wave treading’ (踏浪 Ta Lang in Mandarin) was unknown in the Western world until Nik Zanella entered an ancient Zen monastery 600 km from the beach and found a bas-relief clearly depicting surfers on waves. Nothing could be more unexpected! The surfer’s stance and facial expressions clearly displaying what surfers unmistakably recognise as stoke. This led Nik on one of the greatest surfing archaeological missions of all time.
Children of the Tide is his journey from a grommethood, surfing the back of the figurative boot of Italy, to studying Chinese language in Venice, and then to making sense of his discovery. Each chapter brings insights to the life of a hardcore Italian surf explorer, as well as Chinese philosophy, art and poetry.
It is an enchanting journey which is hard to put down. Nik is a veteran journalist and was the editor of Italy’s Surf News Magazine from 2000 to 2011. He now lives in China, working at the Olympic Project, coaching the national surf team and surfing his brains out on Hainan’s long pointbreaks. Children of the Tide is his love letter to Chinese surf culture and opens a new era for research, where wave-riding goes much further back in history and is wider spread than any of us thought possible just a decade ago.
Edited by acclaimed writer Sam Bleakley, Children of the Tide is the best surf travel adventure I have ever read.
// TOM WEGENER