CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 29, March 2012


Tides Chao

Geremie R. Barmé

The confluence of climatic imagery, poetic tradition, romantic metaphor and revolutionary rhetoric is an important aspect of the late-traditional early modern trans-valuation of Chinese socio-political cultural ideas and practices. The word 'tide' (chao 潮) is central to a cluster of terms related to dramatic change, a welling of expectation, revolution and historical trends. It also has a range of other meanings such as 'fashionable', 'trendy' or 'edgy'; it is also used in such expressions as 'currents of thought' (sichao 思潮), 'new wave' (xinchao 新潮) and 'emotional uplift' (xinchao 心潮); not to mention, of course, a type of non-socialist gaochao 高潮, that is 'orgasm'.

The Tidal Bore or 'tide' (chao 潮) of the Qiantang River 錢塘江 just north of the city of Hangzhou has been celebrated in stories, prose, poetry and painting for over a millennium.[1] The bore, also called a 'tide-head' (chaotou 潮頭), is created by sea waves rushing inland and clashing with the out-flowing tide of the river. It is particularly celebrated and crowds gather to observe it every year at the autumn equinox, between the fifteenth to the eighteenth of the eighth lunar month. The particular shape of the river—the course of the river is likened to the Chinese character 'zhi' 之 and one of the names of this particular stretch of water is the 'Zhe [or bent] River' (Zhe Jiang 折江)—creates a larger sea wave in the estuary at this time of year, as well as during the spring equinox. It is the 'bent river' that gives the province of Zhejiang its name.

The clash between the waters of the Qiantang as they flow out to sea and the tide surging inland through the river's S-bend estuary generates tidal bores or steep-edged waves up to nine metres (thirty feet) in height that can travel up to forty kilometres (twenty-five miles) per hour. The Qiantang Tide is said to be the largest of its kind in the world and today it is most often viewed from a dedicated scenic area at Haining 海寧 in Jiaxing 嘉興, some thirty kilometres downstream from West Lake.

King Qian Shoots the Tide

The tidal bore is linked to the 'founding father' of Hangzhou, King Qian Liu (錢鏐, 852-932) of Wu-Yue. The kingdom flourished between the end of the Tang dynasty and the founding of the Song (907-60), during a period known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (五代十國). From the earliest days the tidal bore, as well as other floods and storms, threatened arable land and dwellings along the course of the Fuchun River (Fuchun Jiang 富春江), as this length of the river was also known. The cost of maintaining and repairing the dykes and sea walls along the river so as to protect farmland and lives was formidable; it was likened to the expense of containing the erratic flow of the Yellow River itself (as the saying goes 'gold it costs for the daily repair of the Yellow River, silver is needed for the Qian' 黃河日修一斗金,錢江日修一斗銀). A folk tale about King Qian celebrates his efforts to tame the irascible 'Sea Spirit' (Haishen 海神) that was said to stir up the tide:

The story of Qian comes to us from a portrayal in the 'Record of the Shooting of the Tides' [射潮記], written by Qian's third generation offspring, Sun Qian Weiyan. It is said of the early days of establishing the dyke that it took place in the eighth month, at a time of high tides and seasonal flooding. The raging tide and pounding swirl made it impossible to carry out construction work. Qian therefore ordered and led the deployment of soldiers to the site. From the hillsides down to the southern side of the mountain sturdy bamboo trees were made into three thousand arrows by woodworkers. These arrows were then adorned with the feathers of various birds, and painted with a fiery red coloration, and newly fired metal was used to make the arrow tips. Five hundred soldiers who had the skill and strength to fire the crossbow were assembled at the banks of the Yangtze River and each archer was given six arrows. Each time there was a tidal rush, they would fire one arrow into the raging torrent. It was in this way that, after they had fired five times, they unexpectedly forced the tide to turn away from Hangzhou Bay and they made these eastern tides turn toward the western hills. It is said of these five hundred archers that they are all buried together at Pubing [fu], an area between Houchaomen and Tongjiangmen. Above the ground in which they lay, a memorial was erected to them in a place called Tiezhuangpu. In Hangzhou's Jianggan district; even to this day, there are still two lane-ways bearing the names 'the horizontal arrow lane-way' [横箭道巷] and the 'vertical arrow lane- way' [直箭道巷]. It is said that these names are related to the story of King Qian and the shooting of the tide.[2]

'King Qian Shoots the Tide' (Qian wang she chao 錢王射潮) remains a popular story although, unlike King Canute (or 'Cnut', the famed 'ruler of the waves' who flourished around the same time), Qian Liu's efforts and those of the ministers who advised him did quell the tidal surge long enough for a protecting dyke to be built. King Qian's contribution to the city of Hangzhou and his taming of the nearby waters by constructing the sea wall (tang 塘) was acknowledged when the river itself was named after him. Henceforth, it was known as the Qian River 錢江, and eventually the Qiantang River 錢塘江.

Rather than shooting arrows into the river in the hope that aqueous disaster could be averted, dynastic rulers and local officials over the following centuries made annual sacrifices to propitiate the Sea Spirit. Even the emperor Qianlong first sacrificed to the river before viewing the tide when his Tours of the South took him to West Lake. Famed for generations as one of China's 'remarkable spectacles' (qiguan 奇觀), the tides continued until recently to wreak havoc along the course of the river, often flooding agricultural land, towns and cities. It has been remarked that due to the directions in which the tides move, their speed and height, they can appear in various forms and patterns. These include: criss-crossed tides (jiaocha chao 交叉潮), single-line tides (yixian chao 一線潮), returning tides 回頭潮), midnight tides (banye chao 半夜潮) and 'T-tides' (dingzi chao 丁字潮).

The Tide of Zhejiang

The revolutionary anti-Qing newspaper Tide of Zhejiang (Zhejiang Chao 浙江潮) founded by Jiang Baili 蔣百里 and Ye Lan 葉瀾 in 1903, availed itself of the image of the annual tidal bore on the Qiangtang River to romanticize the unstoppable tide of revolutionary change that was sweeping over China and the world in the late-nineteenth century. The magazine was produced in Tokyo by Chinese students who were themselves from Zhejiang (we should note that in Japanese the term 'new tide' or shin sho has its own history). They declared that their journal would: 'introduce civilization' (shuru wenming 輸入文明), 'encourage daring' (fa qi xiongxin 發其雄心), 'nurture courage' (yang qi qipo 養其氣魄) and 'churn up the tide of revolution' (xiongyong geming chao 洶湧革命潮). Its editorial line was anti-imperialist as well as being set against the Qing government and the reformers who hoped to establish a constitutional monarchy. The publication, the imagery it employed and the fact that it appealed directly to the highly educated patriots of the Lower Yangtze Valley and more broadly helped make the concept of 'the tide of revolution' part of China's twentieth-century political discourse. A journal of the same name was produced in Hangzhou from 9 October 1913, following the fall of the Qing dynasty.

The leader of the movement that led to the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, Sun Yat-sen, also used the language of 'tides' to describe radical change in China. One of his most famous statements remains: 'World progress is like a tidal wave. Those who ride it will prosper, and those who fight against it will perish' (shijie chaoliu, haohao dangdang, zhun zhi ze chang, ni zhi ze wang 世界潮流,浩浩蕩蕩,順之則昌,逆之則亡).[3] When he witnessed the Qiantang tidal bore for himself on his third and last trip to Hangzhou in August 1916, Sun also praised the immortal spirit of the patriot Wu Zixu whose corpse had been cast into the river, his righteous anger against a cruel fate said to be the cause of the annual tidal tumult (Sun's words are recorded as having been: '伍子胥死於吳,屍沈錢塘,後人謂伍子胥忠魂未泯,怒氣未消,去水作濤。故錢塘之潮,甲於天下,為一大觀。余意人之精神不死,軀體雖不存,而其愛國之精神,猶能瀰漫天地,此即浩然之氣也').[4] This conflation of 'inscribed landscapes' and natural phenomena, poetic lyricism and politics would become a feature of modern Chinese socio-political culture.

The political uncertainty and social chaos of the 1910s, however, meant that the term chao would also be used for expressions such as 'angry tides' (nuchao 怒潮) which described worker protest. Similarly, 'disturbances', 'student demonstrations' and 'mass agitations' were often referred to as 'storms and tides' (fengchao 風潮) after the storms that commonly struck the Lower Yangtze Valley, in particular Hangzhou and Zhejiang, over the summer months. Expressions such as 'student surges' (xuechao 學潮) and 'worker surges' (gongchao 工潮) were equally employed to characterize the mass unrest that marked the Republican era.

Half a century after Sun Yat-sen's praise for the tide, as radical rural reform was encouraged and then imposed on the country in the early years of the People's Republic, the Communist leader Mao Zedong would celebrate the 'high tide of socialism' (shehuizhuyi gaochao 社會主義高潮) in rural China. In September 1956, when staying at his Liu Villa 劉莊 retreat on West Lake, Mao visited the Qian River to see the annual tidal bore for himself. He wrote a poem to mark the occasion, although the rather crude verse he penned was not celebrated in the media of his day. It was titled simply 'Observing the Tide' (Guan chao 觀潮).


Riding the Tide of History

The 'tide of history' (lishi chaoliu 歷史潮流) became a popular metaphor to describe the ineluctable progress of revolutionary change (although 'revolutionary tide' is an expression with a lineage in modern European history as well). In the early Cultural Revolution era people were denounced for 'going against the tide [of history]' (逆[歷史]潮流而動). Then, only a few years later, in an attempt to rekindle the radicalism of the mid 1960s, the former worker rebel, Wang Hongwen 王洪文, spoke in praise of those who 'had a revolutionary spirit of daring to go against the tide' (ganyu you fan chaoliude geming jingshen 敢于有反潮流精神) at the Tenth Party Congress held in Beijing in August 1973. Mao affirmed the statements of man who for a time was considered to be his successor, and declared that 'going against the tide is a principle of Marxism-Leninism'. By the end of the Cultural Revolution the official media was heaping praise on a post-Red Guard generation of rebels who rejected attempts to reintroduce educational norms. For a time these latter-day upstarts were lauded as 'heroes who go against the tide' (fan chaoliu yingxiong 反潮流英雄).[5]

Later on, the tide was invested with less revolutionary meanings. The first 'wave' of literary change following Mao's death in 1976 resulted in what was dubbed 'new wave literature' (chaotou wenxue 潮頭文學).[6] When, after decades spent imposing a politics of class hatred and struggle, the Communist Party turned its attention to economic development and the betterment of its people in 1978, the move was spoken of in terms of a 'new historical tide'. As this faltered following 4 June 1989 Deng Xiaoping made a famous 'Tour of the South' (nanxun 南巡) in early 1992 to revive the Party's policies of economic reform. Propagandists soon described this as marking 'the resurgence of the great tide' (da chao xinqi 大潮新起).[7]

From before the Song, local young men were famed for 'surfing' on the tidal bore while holding up flags during the annual surge. They were called 'wave-riders' (nongchao'er 弄潮兒). It is said that the riders first appeared to commemorate the loyal minister Wu Zixu (伍子胥, d.484BCE), the 'God of the Tides' (chaoshen 潮神, also known as the 'Spirit of the Waves' 濤神) mentioned earlier. Wu 伍 was a minister to the ruler of Wu 吳 during the Warring States period. He warned his king that the enemy state of Yue would rise up one day to take revenge on Wu. His advice was ignored and, undermined at court, he was ordered to commit suicide. Wu Zixu's corpse was sealed in a bag and dumped in the river. As we have noted, it is said that the vengeful spirit of the wronged minister was the cause of the 'angry tides' of Qian River. Indeed, some accounts hold that when King Qian prepared his forces to 'shoot the tide' he first made a sacrifice to Wu Zixu in the hope of placating him.

Since the Song, the practice of wave- or tide-riding (nongchao 弄潮) has frequently been banned by official order since it was (and is) not uncommon for onlookers, or indeed 'surfers', to die when the bore came thundering down the river on its way to Hangzhou Bay. Just as the concept of the tumultuous 'tide' became a metaphor for unstoppable revolutionary change, so 'tide-playing' would feature in the writings and statements of progressive students and thinkers first in the south and then nation wide.

As the May Fourth student movement swept China in 1919, the activist Luo Jialun (羅家倫, 1897-1969) wrote: 'Now that the tide of the world is coming, why do we not spread and ply the oars to become the worlds tide-player boys (lung ch'ao erh)?'[8] Luo a student at Peking University at the time, the hotbed of student activism, was himself from Shaoxing in Zhejiang. Along with fellow radicals he founded the 'New Tide Society' (Xin Chao She 新潮社) which, from January 1919, produced the magazine 'New Tide'. Among other things it celebrated the tide of change unleashed by the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. In Hangzhou itself, from April 1919 Jing Hengyi (經亨頤, zi Ziyuan 子淵, 1877-1939), the principal of Zhejiang First Normal College founded Tides in Education (Jiaoyu Chao 教育潮). ' "Tides are natural wonders," said the inaugural editorial, "They are infinitely complex in split seconds, and they are so overwhelming…. They break new ground endlessly, rejuvenating life with this incessant force of change." The tides "sweep away the decayed and break up the hollow." Tides are nature's way of releasing the hold of the old and hastening the birth of the new.'[9] The magazine was suppressed by the provincial authorities for its radicalism in January 1920 along with its even more radical student counterpart Zhejiang New Tide Weekly (Zhejiang xinchao 浙江新潮).

In contemporary parlance the expression 'wave-riders' is used to describe men and women who have taken advantage of the 'great tidal surge of commerce' (shangye dachao 商業大潮) to make their fortunes. In 2011, the US-based writer Jianying Zha published a book about such figures under the title Tide Players: The Movers and Shakers of a Rising China. Since 1997, a prominent party journal titled Tide of the Century (Bainian Chao 百年潮) has followed the activities of a different kind of opportunist. The history of radicalism and hope in the twentieth century provides a cautionary reminder to 'tide-riders' of all ilks; they would be well advised to remember the disappointment that invariably follows in the wake of a 'receding tide' (tui chao 退潮).

Back to the China Heritage Glossary


* Much of this material previously appeared under the title of 'The Tide of Revolution 錢江潮/ 浙江潮' in the December 2011 issue of China Heritage Quarterly.

[1] For a discussion of the tidal bore and the changing environment of Hangzhou Bay from the Song, see the chapter by Mark Elvin and Su Ninghu in Elvin and Ts'ui-jung Liu, eds, Sediments of Time: Environment and Society in Chinese history, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. For a discussion of the bore from the Yongzheng to Daoguang reign periods of the Qing, see Qin Fang, Creating Local Landscape: Tidal Bores and Seawalls at Haining (1720s-1830s), University of Minnesota, 2008.

[2] See Editorial Board of the Zhejiang Provincial Political Consultative Conference, Literary and Historical Materials, vol.54 (1993), Ye Bingnan, It Is Said That in Zhejiang: A Selection of Literary and Historical Documents from Zhejiang, p.23. Translated by Michael Dutton in 'Lead Us Not Into Translation: Notes toward a Theoretical Foundation for Asian Studies', Nepantla: Views from South, vol.3, issue 3 (2002):495-537, at pp.527-28. Dutton uses this story as the opening gambit in his meditation on area studies. In particular he remarks:

There is a story told today about an event in ancient China wherein five hundred archers were said to have been dispatched, on the emperor's ex- press orders, to a coastal location near Hangzhou that was about to be reclaimed by imperial engineers. There, in an event that enabled the commencement of this major project, arrows were fired into the sea to ward off the dragon god. These 'opening shots' are, in a contemporary Western recollection of the event, said to be 'ceremonial', warning the dragon god not to make (violent) waves. Yet the object of this form of 'ceremony' and the 'engineering' project that it 'celebrated' were, in fact, of equal weight, for both were designed to outwit the dragon god and fend off the tempestuous sea so that the land could be reclaimed for the emperor. The techniques differed—the archer used the bow, the engineer, science and technic (in Georges Bataille's sense)—but their objects were identical. Yet when this account is retold in our time and in our functionalist logic, it becomes a story of scientific discovery, and the archers' tale is relegated to a 'ceremonial space' somewhere on the margins of this main scientific account. For me, while the functionalist analysis is a useful corrective to idealism, there is much more to tell, both in the archer's tale and in its retelling as 'ceremonial'.[p.495]

[3] Sun's line was used as recently as July 2011 by the Party media to describe China's rise. 'Nowadays', the People's Daily Online declared, 'most countries are seeking peace, development and cooperation, and China's peaceful rise strategy is in line with the current global trend. Sun Yat-sen once said, "World progress is like a tidal wave. Those who ride it will prosper, and those who sail against it will perish."' See Wu Jianmin, 'Why China will rise peacefully under Communist Party leadership?', 4 July 2011, online at:

[4] Wang Zhenguo 汪振國, 'Sun Yat-sen in Hangzhou' (Sun Zhongshan Hangzhou zhi xing 孫中山杭州之行), in Hangzhou Municipal NPPCC Culture and History Committee, ed., Collected Articles on the Culture and History of Hangzhou (Politics and Military Affairs, Part I) (Hangzhou Wenshi Congbian: Zhengzhi junshi juan, shang), Hangzhou: Hangzhou Chubanshe, 2001, at p.104. For details of Wu Zixu's history and fate over time, see Paul A. Cohen Speaking to History: The Story of King Goujian in Twentieth Century China, California: University of California Press, 2008, pp.3-7, 14-15 and elsewhere.

[5] These heroes were Huang Shuai 黃帥, famous for her anti-teacher diary, and Zhang Tiesheng 張鐵生, noted for having handed in a blank examination paper as an act of rebellion against teacher evaluations and examination scores.

[6] See Geremie Barmé, 'Chaotou Wenxue—China's New Literature', The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No.2 (July 1979): 137-48, at p.140 & 147 n20. 'New wave literature' was soon replaced by the more popular expression 'scar literature' (shanghen wenxue 傷痕文學), so-called after a story by the Shanghai writer Lu Xinhua 盧新華 that appeared in August 1978.

[7] See, for example, the 1992 book Da chao xin qi—Deng Xiaoping nanxun qianqian houhou, Beijing: Zhongguo Guangbo Dianshi Chubanshe, 1992.

[8] Quoted in Chow Tse-tsung, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1960, p.61.

[9] Wen-hsin Yeh, Provincial Passages: Culture, Space, and the Origins of Chinese Communism, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, pp.133 & 135. By the end of May 1919 student demonstrators in Hangzhou who had been clamorous in support of their Beijing counterparts had scattered in the face of official suppression. One paper commented that while the tidal bore of the Qiantang was majestic, the students of the Hangzhou had given up when ordered to. (Yeh, p.150.)