"How can I help you, foreign believer?" [the abbot of The Qiongzhu Temple] said in Mandarin. "Surfing, Master," I answered. . ."I'd like to know about those [surfing] statues I have seen in the prayer hall. . . . Master, who are these men and what are they doing? Are they real people or imaginary characters?" "Those are luohan, living saints, real people like me and you, who have followed the scriptures and attained enlightenment." . . . "They represent Shakyamuni's (Buddha's) . . . best disciples, entrusted by him to remain in the world and not to enter Nirvana until . . . the oncoming Buddha appears and brings in a new era."
When I first glanced at the MagicSeaweed news headline, "The Forgotten Surfers of 10th Century China," I was immediately pulled into the short interview with Italian surfer and author Nik Zanella about his 2019 book, Children of the Tide: An Exploration of Surfing in Dynastic China. After greedily devouring the interview like a wave-starved grom, I immediately ordered the newly released book from U.K. based bookseller Cordee as it wasn't available through Amazon.
Being a Taoist surfer, I waited patiently for the first international book I had ever ordered to arrive. When I finally found it washed up on my door step like a precious treasure, I ripped open the package and dove in to find it's hidden secrets. On page 15 quoted above, I was dumbstruck. When I read it my jaw dropped open and I leaped off my nylon beach chair in astonishment, my own personal biases upwelling within my speculations. Could this be true? Could surfing have played a part in the ancient Chinese quest for enlightenment? Did the abbot's reply mean that the Buddha's surfing disciples were left on Earth to hold balance? Even though I wanted to let my mind continue the freefall it was enjoying, I simply could not stop reading.
Woven through the pages of his personal surf adventures, are author Nik Zanella's years of globe trotting research into ancient Chinese surfing, his intimate understanding of Chinese culture and simple explanations of complex nuances in Chinese language itself. As editor and writer of his native Italy's SurfNews Magazine from 2000 to 2011, Zanella honed his writing skills through years in the surf media industry. With a university degree in Chinese culture, a firm grasp of Mandarin and a young surfer's enthusiasm for adventure, Zanella's pages fill readers with delicious menu-like descriptions of a land often unexplored by wave seekers: “The Republic of Empty Waves” he writes. The author's passion for surfriding and all things China enthusiastically drive the reader headlong through his years of fact finding research on the long forgotten "wave treaders" or nong chong er of the Song Dynasty.
As a longboard surfer and tai chi practitioner for many years, I had recognized the numerous parallels both physical and non-physical between these two forms of flow activities. I had in fact just written my own book about what I had learned from engaging in these two seemingly dissimilar exercises. Most if not all surfers will confess to finding an intimate spiritual connection when surfing. "Only a surfer knows the feeling" is a well understood and accurate cliché of those who paddle out. Sitting on my longboard in between sets I am often overcome with intense feelings of oneness or communion I only find out here and in the depths of a profound tai chi practice session.Not personally knowing anyone else who practices both surfing and tai chi, I often wondered if I was alone in observing that they both teach us to move and flow like water, putting us in touch with the healing cycles of our natural world.
Not only did Children of the Tide convince me that these two activities go hand in hand but that for centuries they both have connected us to the intangible aspects of our world that many equate to the spiritual, giving greater depth and meaning to our lives as a whole. That there are surfers, nong chong er depicted on centuries old temple walls speaks of the sport's sanctity.
Nik Zanella's book reaffirms that the power of surfing goes far beyond our own personal experience to impact the larger societies in which we live. By following his passion researching what interested him and then writing what he learned down for us to read, the author has reshaped the face of surfing in China. "Treading waves" was outlawed on the Silver Dragon River tidal bore shortly after the Song Dynasty due to its inherent danger. The twice daily flooding associated with the river has killed hundreds over the millennia. While that moratorium on surfing one of the world's most famous river waves lasted for centuries, Nik Zanella's passion for both surfing and China led the way to reopening the river to surfers in the annual Qiantang Jiang Shoot-Out. This alone is testimony that one person, one surfer flowing with who he is can change the tide for the benefit of all.
Whether you surf, are intrigued by Chinese culture or simply enjoy a great modern adventure through the pages of history, Children of the Tide will leave you as satisfied as a good session. It will remain on my shelf not only as a cherished reference but also as a reminder of the impact one surfer’s passion has made on the world's oldest and largest culture.
Lea Williamson is a longboard surfer, shifu of qigong, founder of BeachsideQigong.com and author of Surfing the Sea of Chi from Indigo River Publishing, (releasing Nov 13). Be The Solution not the problem