The commonly accepted history of surfing is that it all started a few hundred years ago in Hawaii, as early as the 12th century.
This theory, however, has recently been challenged by Italian surf historian Nicola ‘Nik’ Zanella, who argues surfing may have existed in China for over a thousand years—from 960 AD to be precise.
That’s right, China. The place isn’t exactly known for its groomed point breaks and punchy beachies, but surfing in China didn’t start on the coast—it began on the Qiantang River in Hangzhou, home to the world’s biggest tidal bore, a place where surfing events are still held.
Today, the majority of China’s surfers reside in Hainan, the country’s most southern region, where it’s estimated over 5,000 people surf every day. The claim that surfing originated in China is partly based on Contemplating the Tide, a poem by Zhou Mi that Zanella translated:
‘Hundreds of brave watermen … with unfastened hair and tattoos, holding coloured flags, race to the water … they paddle towards the oncoming waves … 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,’ reads a translated section of Zhou’s poem.
‘They gather in a group of a hundred, holding coloured flags, and compete in treading waves. They head straight to the river mouth to welcome the tide,’ Zhou writes in another poem, Recollections of Wulin Garden. ‘Moreover, there’s some who tread on drifting wood … performing hundreds of water tricks, having fun, each displaying great mastery.’ This all sounds a touch like the logging content you’d see today at Noosa or Malibu. And there hasn’t been much progression since surfing’s newfound origins either… Well, other than the exorbitant costs of buying a board from a resin-breathing hippy.
Zanella estimates that surfing in the Qiantang River whenever the bore broke continued—with a few hiatuses for warfare and bans—up until the mid-19th century when surfing there was outlawed. While surfing the bore still happens during The Battle at the Silver Dragon event, this is the only time you’re legally allowed to surf there now.
Besides, unless you’re semi-competent, it would be unwise to paddle out into a river with waves coming in at 30 kilometres an hour and washing you into a concrete seawall.