Review: 'Children of the Tide' by Nik Zanella

Margie Wegener picture
Margie Wegener (Tom Wegener)
The Depth Test

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. 


'Children of the Tide' is available online on Kindle, and in hard copy.



downtown train's picture
downtown train's picture
downtown train Thursday, 8 Aug 2019 at 6:08pm

Though we're only finding out other peoples surfed, it shouldn't come as any great surprise. The ability to play (Hawaiians and Tahitians) and to utilise natural resources (the Peruvians) is part of our human DNA. We see waves, we ride them!

This book sounds great though.


frog's picture
frog's picture
frog Thursday, 8 Aug 2019 at 10:37pm

Read the free sample. Sounds intriguing - not just the chinese part - the italian surfer beginnings are as well.

truebluebasher's picture
truebluebasher's picture
truebluebasher Friday, 16 Aug 2019 at 1:15am

tbb is just gonna branch out the studies nothing more...that's a good thing right!

Oz Aboriginal Reed rafts & canoes are closer to 50,000 y/old
Tassie Aborigines surfed to South America via Antarctica...(Reed craft link > DNA)

Oz Aborigines Tided Rafts to China over 5,000 y/ago (1st Oz grog /Tobacco trade)

Japanese Rafters have long had great footwork surfing wild rapids.

East Coast Sailors survived Ship Wrecks in similar manner + Shirt sail plank rafts.
Also prone surfed planks, only to be impaled by protruding nails on shore breaks...

*Introducing detailed Study paper that extends on featured Surf Story. (Shh!)

March/2012 China History Quarterly No 29 (The Australian National University)
'Tides Chao' by Geremie R. Barme`
re: "Riding the Tide of History"

907-60 ( From before the Song )...
(Chinese "Stand up" Bore Surfing began around 1800 years earlier than said here).

484 BC Wu Zixu was sacrificed to the River... "The Spirit of The Waves"
Wave Riders "nongchao'er" Surfed the tidal bore each year flying Flags.
483 BC They first appeared to Commemorate Wu Zixu (God of the Tides)

852-952 King Qian henceforth made a sacrifice before his forces shoot the Tide.

Also 3,000 arrows (500 archers fired 6 each into the waves to divert them).

907-60 Since the Song...The practice of wave riding has frequently been banned.

1270 (See feature Article of re-emergence of Chinese Bore Surfing)

The Legacy (Today)
Here we see a 'river edge' surfer in a patriotic sacrificial pose.

River edge Surfers get obliterated. In China 10's > 100's > 1,000's die doing just this.
It seems the greater the crowd the greater the number take on the wave.
It's no accident that we see countless bodies washed is a patriotic sacrifice.

It's almost as if Sacrificial Postcard Arenas have heightened the wave impact.
Silver Dragon has no shortage of Human Sacrifice...

French are no different... boaties,horsemen,Mums & Grans all wipeout,

Here's the French Ceremony + A dozen or so wanted more & will wade out next tide.

Check out the end where Gran is outed as a surfer...cover is blown! Fark!

French sacrificial surfers poised on an outpost ready to surf the Bore Wave.

Clearly no one needs a Surfboard to ride the Bore Wave,..feeling lucky Punk!

tbb is also a surf historian who equally loves riding surf history reawakening.
Thanks to swellnet & Tom for sharing these excellent surf studies...truly loved it!

[Breaking News] Today historians discovered neanderthals had 'surfers ear'..
tbb needs not explain that only comes with major wind blown water action!

velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno Sunday, 18 Aug 2019 at 7:37pm

I reckon people riding waves goes all the way back 180,000 years, or 300,000 years or whatever the dating is pushing us out to. When we work out it can move us along, the surfing begins.

Most perfect shaped glassy waves I ever saw were little, waist to chest high and nowhere near where I'd expect to see board riding waves. So I stripped off and bodysurfed them.

velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno Sunday, 18 Aug 2019 at 7:37pm
truebluebasher's picture
truebluebasher's picture
truebluebasher Wednesday, 3 Aug 2022 at 10:18pm

Palaeolithic Seafaring in East Asia : Testing the Bamboo Raft Hypothesis.

Ocean Tide surfer's craft & routes from Japan > Korea >Taiwan > Timor > Australia
Excellent early Oceanic tidal wave craft study...Salute to Authors...more than happy to share!

seeds's picture
seeds's picture
seeds Friday, 5 Aug 2022 at 8:34pm

TLDR i haven’t yet. I noticed in photos very much shaped like modern plastic sit on top kayaks with a rear keel. How far forward does it go I wonder. Also notice thicker heavier culms progressing to the lowest central culm/keel. Sort of like a heavy yacht keel to keep it upright.

truebluebasher's picture
truebluebasher's picture
truebluebasher Friday, 26 Aug 2022 at 3:23pm

Aboriginal < > Asian Ocean Tide rafters traded from Australia thru China thru Japan.
Surfing the head then the broken face of 9-15ft Tidal Waves over straits & up rivers to port cities.
Chinese made a spectacle of this stand up surfing.

Nov 2016
$820m Gold Coast / Chinese Theme Park proposed to feature this ancient surf culture
Australia Legendary Kingdom

Features Song Dynasty Tidal Bore Rafters, one can see these tidal wave rafters in Theme Park sketch!

This article relays 2,000 years of celebrating the Quintang River bore Wave.
From 1st Century & popular Tang Dynasty era 7th -13th centuries.
Yangong being the pick of the river towns to view the Wave...

Song Theme Parks also celebrate this River Song Dynasty > bore wave culture

tbb apologizes for only recently picking up on this Ancient Surfing relevance.
Like many locals...thought it was a song & dance routine of general Chinese Culture.

Gold Coast Tidal Wave Surfing Theme Park also featured a Wave Pool & Flowrider.
Again tbb apologizes for not knowing far only ever seen this reported the once!
Scroll towards the very end of this News article to read about Wave Pool / Flow rider.

Yes! The same company does operate several Wave Pool it is / was a real deal!

Theme Park Blog...

March 2022 Chinese Developer applies for extension citing strained Oz relations / Pandemic / Election.

Aug 2022 All washed Up...