Mountains and Water

Nik Zanella's picture
By Nik Zanella

Mountains and Water

Nik Zanella
Swellnet Dispatch

Surfers' dreams feed on images of empty waves. One, dated 1200, has raised my curiosity for years. It is a bird-eye view of a Chinese coastline at sunset, a roaring wave approaches the shore and cuts the composition in two, the vegetation in the foreground tells about where and when the action is taking place, a pagoda on the shore puts swell size in a context, five dots on a barge, the only human presence.

Lineups are archetypal images; an art within the art of surf photography. From the first issue of ‘The Surfer’ in 1960 to the present, generations have grown up mind-surfing them. They speak of the moment of contemplation that precedes the rite, that last glance we give before losing ourselves in the ocean. It is a moment we share with fishermen, sailors and migrants since the dawn of time, but which got very rarely celebrated in art.

For most human cultures, the shoreline is nothing ‘fun’ nor ‘inspiring’. People work, fight and often die on the beach, swallowed by rogue waves, lost to the abysses without a proper burial. The love for the beach is a taste we acquired only recently, thanks to Romanticism, in the 1800s.

It comes to no surprise that the artists embedded in James Cook’s expeditions, able to depict plants and animals to incredible details of realism, miserably failed to portrait waves and the Kanaks riding them during their first encounters in the 1770s. Their attempts at Polynesian seascapes are clumsy, to say the least. They had most likely never seen a painted wave, nor tried to reproduce one.

Waves are a rarity in Western art. They make a fleeting appearance in a painting by Claude Monet (Waves Breaking, 1881) in the shape of unsurfable froth.

At left, Claude Monet's Waves Breaking, and at right, Gustave Courbet's La Vague

William Turner (1775 - 1881) uses them to instil pathos in his marinas, but he sees terror not ecstasy. Frenchman Gustave Courbet  was possibly the first to look into a four foot barrel (along the coast of Brittany) and find it appealing. His ‘La Vague’, dated 1870, is not a mouth-watering lineup, but at least shows some curiosity.

Things are different in China. On this second trip through my 'vertical' secret spots (read previous instalment here) I’m taking you to Hangzhou, Chinese capital under the glorious Song Dynasty (960 - 1279). We are on the northern bank of the Qiantang River, where the world’s largest and most constant tidal bore breaks. The Silver Dragon is the Mount Everest of riverine waves, breaking for over 100 days per year, up to three metres in height.

The author of the opening leaf is Xia Gui (1195 - 1224), court painter and art celebrity of the era. The image was brushed in the autumn, replicating the view of the spot from the imperial palace.

It is a silk fan, 30cm per side, designed to take part, in the hands of a noble lady, during the Tide Watching Festival, a spectacle held during the autumn equinox when the waves are at their peak. The celebration included wave-riding competition and military parade witnessed by the emperor, and pretty much everyone in a town of 1.5 million souls.

Hangzhou was also the epicentre of a pre-contact surf scene that left traces in chronicles, poetry, and art. As the historian Zhou Mi (1231 - 1298) recounts:

"Young fishermen from Wu, with unfastened hair and tattoos […] gather in a group of a hundred and compete in treading waves. […] Moreover, there’s some who tread on drifting wood, tossed around by the water like puppets, performing hundreds of water tricks, having fun, each displaying great mastery".

Curiosity for waves was not limited to pulled-out views, Song artists went into details, from ripples to breakers, such as in this shore pound (see following image), sketched by an anonymous artist, again during the late Song, or in Ma Yuan’s 'Studies on Water' (1160 - 1225), twelve tables investigating ripples, currents, and breaking waves, with a lyricism and curiosity non-existent in Western art of the time.

The first tide table (1056) and the first documented wave-riding competition (circa 1150) were conceived here, so it is not surprising if an artistic vision of the waves existed in this context, with almost antithetical assumptions compared to Western art.

Chinese call this genre 山水 shanshui, which stands for 'mountains and water', inspired by the naturalism of Taoist philosophy. As in the lineup photos dear to surfers, human beings are reduced to insignificant specks, at the mercy of natural forces. The focus is on mountains, clouds, water, and the way they interact with each other.

Ante litteram lineups. Action shots without manoeuvres. Gleams of a lost surf culture, preserved in art books and museums.


Surf explorer, coach, and Sinologist, Nik Zanella has been living on Hainan island (China) for the past ten years, working at several levels of the surf development project and researching China’s untold wave-riding past. His acclaimed book, ‘Children of the Tide’ tells the surprising story of a wave riding community active from the 9th to the 13th century that left traces in art, poetry and dynastic chronicles.

CHILDREN OF THE TIDE (printed edition)

CHILDREN OF THE TIDE (digital edition for iPad and Kindle)


garry-weed's picture
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garry-weed Tuesday, 6 Jun 2023 at 9:12am

I wonder if Hokusai had seen any versions of these images?

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Nik Zanella Tuesday, 6 Jun 2023 at 11:21am

Surely did. Song Dynasty are and culture influenced Japan tremendously.

blackers's picture
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blackers Tuesday, 6 Jun 2023 at 10:48am

Loving your work Nik, astounding. Great images and insight, and changes our (well mine at least) whole understanding of surf history and it's origins.
On a lighter note it seems the first documented "surf competition" back in the 12th century was at the local equivalent to Kelly's tub, consistent and predictable. Perhaps the wozzle have it right after all.....

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Nik Zanella Tuesday, 6 Jun 2023 at 11:19am

Haha! Sure having a massive single tidal wave break at every low tide helped humans understand Tide cycles..

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Jelly Flater Tuesday, 6 Jun 2023 at 11:23am

Beautiful stuff.

Cultural and historical treasures…

The Chinese have been kicking goals for a lot longer than we choose to acknowledge ;)


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bonza Tuesday, 6 Jun 2023 at 11:49am

very cool. Potential new claimant for the first (recorded) people to surf?

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Nik Zanella Tuesday, 6 Jun 2023 at 3:22pm

No no.. I never claimed Chinese surfers were riding first. The surf community I documented was one of the many non-Polynesian beginnings like there were cases in west Africa, Peru, Turkey. Only that this was happening in the capital under the eyes of historians, poets , artists.. so it left lots of written traces.

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Craig Tuesday, 6 Jun 2023 at 4:03pm


bonza's picture
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bonza Tuesday, 6 Jun 2023 at 5:02pm

thanks for responding

southernraw's picture
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southernraw Tuesday, 6 Jun 2023 at 12:40pm

Amazing article and pics Nik. Very thought provoking and great to quietly reflect upon. Thanks!
My first thought of that first pic was some kind of tidal surge so to read it actually was shows impressive artistic skills.
Agree with Blackers comment above about changing perspective on surf history.
As an aside, would be great to have a page dedicated to Swellnets resident artists sharing their own wave/ocean/beach paintings.
I'm sure there's a few budding Gustav Corbet/Xia Guis amongst the us??

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Nik Zanella Tuesday, 6 Jun 2023 at 4:59pm

This is an idea, there’s plenty of great surf artists with stories to share

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PKsswellnet Tuesday, 6 Jun 2023 at 1:01pm

Thanks Nik
thought provoking to have our view on surf history and origins challenged through art.

I gotta ask - the art deco style wave forms do they predate the Japanese versions that we commonly see? An example of China influencing Japanese art and later western art and architecture?

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Nik Zanella Tuesday, 6 Jun 2023 at 3:14pm

Interesting question..

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Nik Zanella Tuesday, 6 Jun 2023 at 3:31pm

I see the discussion going towards the ‘who surfed first’ rabbit hole: a meaningless question. In this essay written for Griffith University i summed up the evidences and drew my conclusions on this matter. This is like reading my book minus the story-telling + a detailed bibliography.

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Nik Zanella Tuesday, 6 Jun 2023 at 3:31pm

I see the discussion going towards the ‘who surfed first’ rabbit hole: a meaningless question. In this essay written for Griffith University i summed up the evidences and drew my conclusions on this matter. This is like reading my book minus the story-telling + a detailed bibliography.

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freeride76 Tuesday, 6 Jun 2023 at 4:17pm

Jeez, that was an interesting read.

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gsco Tuesday, 6 Jun 2023 at 4:37pm

That really is surprising, who would have thought.

The stoke of surfing is timeless, universal, and knows no national or ethnic boundaries.

Thanks for sharing this. Learnt something new about China, something positive.

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Tooold2bakook Wednesday, 7 Jun 2023 at 9:31pm

Very interesting!

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truebluebasher Wednesday, 14 Jun 2023 at 10:48pm

Salute Nik...huge fans here...
Note near all these paintings here & Japan...
Each show expert rocker surfcraft attacking & surfing Huge steep faces. (Never flinching!)

Paintings also show beach passengers with backs to huge shorebreaks while waiting for Water Taxis.
Indicating that folk were accustomed to challenging shore breaks...
Indeed early Oz travel was only by Surf Buggies & Surf Boats in Point breaks & Beach breaks
Even up creek Mail Buggies...passengers still had to wade across...

Over time...
Govts banned Public from shorelines...tbb is banned from ocean vessels + 99.9% of coastal surfing.

Early navigators judged population by lack of resource tided upon in Coconuts!
First Nation studied Seed Pods upon the shore & crocodiles bodysurf tides between continents.
The Aboriginal Tidal Raft was born to surf intercontinental tides off the moon...island hopping to China.
Check this story...Debris from Indo / Taiwan / Thailand / China washes up on Little Bondi NT.
Meaning...if any surf these tidal waves ya gotta surf ashore or wrestle crocodiles.

Now check this similar Story...Balinese say beach waste is tided from Java. ( Also notice it being another wave beach )
So with can easily assume that Island hoppers must learn to surf to freely exit each paylode ashore of tidal front.
Again...we see that big surf / tides brought these shown payloads...which opens up possibility of Rafting larger Pontoons of goods!
We also know that a shoreline wipeout would render the trade mission a failure & or death, even by tribe.

Ya see...just sit on any of these rafts of timber & ya can island hop with purpose by the tides!
With using our surf knowledge we can easily trace back surf history with Aboriginal -Asian Trade by default.
Reckon we can safely lock it in without stickers!
Ya Island hopping surf raft pretty much invented itself... Simply timetable the moon for Mass Migration!
Many exotic Chinese / Indian narcotic plants & utensils align original Pituri trade routes well into Oz.
Routes are said to extend to 5,000 years trading.

As tidal wave approaches river mouth it rises, speeds & narrows resulting in SUP action to hold wave.
Pause : At this point...( Note Aborigines have slip raft )
It is feasible to split from Parent Raft to smaller single surf craft with trailer to keep with the wave...
This craft might better resemble surf craft as we know it...

The jettisoned lesser precious > bulk raft stock can be detoured to inlet or brought up river with time as a pontoon.
We call this hits their oar to split raft into 2/3/4 loads & surfs desired payload with the Wave.
This is a highly feasible natural skillful surf action to keep surfing the wave...(Check links)

Share swellnet link/s from your earlier work...we tried our best to broaden surf travel of all possibility!
Any wipeout & yer croc food...gotta walk the raft real good to surf the wave up river.

With links to your earlier work...we tried reverse tided trade links from Oz end back to China's Tidal regime.
As you may know that Top End Aborigines traded afar by surfing tides timetabled by the Moon .

What's interesting is earliest intercontinental Trade Ports were serviced by Tidal Craft
Then came the Trade Wind "Polynesians accessing deeper less tidal Central Island Bays.
Followed by Big States with Billowing Sail Craft trading into Deeper Southern & Northern Ports.
With opening of Continental Canals this gauges central Ports servicing Great Circle Equatorial Current.
Estuarine ports are mass dredged to Panama's Gauge & now double the effect of Man-made climate Tides.
There are examples of Hybrid Wind assisted Craft that may shift trade routes & Ports once again...

For sure...follow these original Tidal Surfers Trade Routes & Ports to uncover earlier Surf Nations!
Here's an example of an Earlier Surf Route or supposed earlier epic Surf Craft voyage.

Tasmanian Ocean Reed Canoes

To South America Chilean Reed Canoes (Exact Same thing...but how?)

This was deemed the most likely Island hopping route...for Aboriginal voyage to South America.
Perfectly explains how early expert Oz surfcraft gets exported to South America...(Any other ideas?)

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Nik Zanella Thursday, 15 Jun 2023 at 2:05am

Thanks for all the hints and links. We definitely don’t know when surfing emerged along the austronesian diaspora.. I wrote extensively about Chinese ‘wave treading’ in this essay that you may find interesting

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truebluebasher Tuesday, 27 Jun 2023 at 11:12pm

1100's Gallery of Nazare big wave riders reflects Chinese Big Wave surfers of the era!
Point of Miracle coincides with Portuguese Independence
Mayor / Fishermen / Navy sacrifice themselves in Big surf as Mary will watch over you.
Young fishing crews surfed Peak Winter Swells thru to now & still claim Mary watches over them.

This painting is remarkable...
It shows a Women Crew Surfing the Boat ashore noting Nazare Slam Shorie
The Nazereth Village Surf Rescue Boat crew never looked finer!
Similar in these paintings showing a fully outfitted crew!
Possibly with Goblins (Beanies) cuffs & Waist Belts....Centuries old Big Wave Surf Gear.

Basically we're looking at pioneering year in year out Peak Big Wave season Surf Culture.
Surf Rescue crews & surf boats (Possibly dates back to Spanish Christians 711 > onward)
Town needed Surf Boats to Surf Peak Nazare Swells for sardine to feed their growing Community.
Nazare Surf Rescue crews had their own Deluxe Lock Up Shed / Gates / Alarm Bell.
Notice the Beach Front Church lookout post for bell ringing + Grand Portico Surf Club
Not just any Surf Rescue Crew but the Pride of the Town...( Origin of Pilot Houses / SLS Clubs)
See how the Town look relaxed & proudly confident of A Team to save the day...#1 Surf History Hang!

Fishermen Surfed Tsunamis thru the Village 1500-1700's > Last Waves breached Town in 1970's...
Disrespectful how today's Astronauts keep claiming WR Waves that never once breached the Town?
Almost as if 1,000 years of biggest surf riding history was blatantly being wiped, but for what reason?
Wait another 1,000 years for the Nazare Man-moose Cave to reward past Biggest Wave Surfers.

Nazare Big Wave Surfing Timeline

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Nik Zanella Tuesday, 27 Jun 2023 at 11:32pm

Extremely interesting, sure they knew waves better than most contemporaries. Problem is (but it is just academic) that they were not riding waves for recreational reasons but for survival, work, and war. Again the waves were nothing fun in the old continent until the late 19th century.

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mike oxhard Wednesday, 28 Jun 2023 at 4:42pm

that was an interesting read, cheers

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petermitchell Thursday, 29 Jun 2023 at 11:11am


philosurphizingkerching's picture
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philosurphizing... Thursday, 29 Jun 2023 at 1:10pm

Paulownia is native to China.
I wonder if the 'driftwood ' they were surfing on was paulownia, as it is known for being waterproof.

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Nik Zanella Thursday, 29 Jun 2023 at 1:16pm

Not paulonia, the ancient boards were most likely made of Fir wood, also used in temples. This info comes from interviews I did among the last Tide-players active in Hangzhou until the mid 1980s. There’s a lot of research to be done here.. but I don’t have time and money to do it.

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philosurphizing... Thursday, 29 Jun 2023 at 1:24pm

Do you think there might be one of these early surfboards still in existence?

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Nik Zanella Thursday, 29 Jun 2023 at 1:59pm

I was talking about this with Tom Wegener when my book came out… that would be such a find.. the last of them surfers are about 60 now. I need money to spend time in Hangzhou and do research.