Name a sport and the chances are the Chinese claim to have invented it. One of the benefits of having such a long and inscrutable history is that, statistically speaking, at some point just about every sporting scenario – from kicking a medium-sized ball around a pitch, to hitting a small ball across a field with a stick, will likely have occurred here somewhere. Everything, that is, apart from surfing.
While it may be one of the oldest sports on the planet, surfing came late to China. So late, in fact, that even today the number of Chinese professional sponsored female surfers stands at a grand total of one: 27-year-old Hubei native, Darci Liu.
For a country with over 30 thousand kilometers of Pacific-facing coastline, the omission can seem like a strange one.
“It’s crazy, right?!” says Liu, from her home in Sanya on the southern Chinese tropical island of Hainan. “If you look at the scene 10 years ago, and at Chinese women in general, you’d think: really? Chinese girls surfing?! Impossible!”
Liu, of course, is referring to certain cultural barriers. Most notably, a fear of open water. Swimming is rarely taught in Chinese schools, and, as such, few Chinese can swim, even those in coastal areas.
Women, meanwhile, have traditionally avoided the beach through fear of getting a tan. Contrary to Western ideals of beauty, dark skin is often perceived as unattractive in modern China, and synonymous with low-status outdoor labor.
“It’s true,” says Liu of these difficulties. “But right now, I think young girls are really cool, they really want to learn new things. I think surfing is a very positive sport.”
“Learning to surf changed my life,” Liu continues, warming to the theme. “It has opened so many opportunities, and helped me get my confidence back at a time when I wasn’t really in a good place.”
That time was 2007, when a 20-year-old Liu had just moved to Sanya, jobless and with no real plan, after spending the majority of her teenage years learning ballet in an arts academy in Wuhan. It was during this time that she first rode a surfboard – and learned to swim.
“Growing up 1,000 kilometers from the sea, I had never taken a swimming lesson before,” she recalls. “All I had was a big river, but my parents would not let me go in because they considered it very dangerous.”
An encounter with her now-husband, Californian surfer Matt Hammond, led to her braving her fears and catching her very first wave.
“He introduced me to the discipline,” she says. “The first time I was on the board I just screamed the entire time, but the experience also felt incredibly exciting and fun. Surfing brought about this kind of very simple happiness that I had never got from anything else. Once I started riding the waves, I found myself.”
Playing on her physical strength as a trained dancer, Liu was quick to adapt to the water sport. She developed an elegant, aesthetically pleasing technique influenced by her former ballet education. Although, she says, “balance and confidence are really the only similarities between the two disciplines.”
Liu began competing in the official circuit in 2010, just three years after taking up the sport, soon gaining sponsorship from Swatch. In 2011, the watch company endorsed her as a professional team member and invited her as a wild card participant to the Swatch Girls Pro China in Wanning, Hainan – an event held by the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) that doubles as the women’s World Longboard Championship. The historic move saw her become the first Chinese surfer to compete in an ASP tournament, a role she continued honing over the next two years.
“I have been very lucky,” she says. “If I had been born in Australia or Hawaii, the competition would have been incredibly tough – those countries have plenty of great surfers already. But it has also been a matter of timing.”
Besides securing Liu’s debut as China’s first representative in an international event, the 2011 Swatch Girls Pro also marked the first professional surf contest to be held in the Middle Kingdom – a decision no doubt spurred by the desire to both promote the growth of surfing in the region and to ride the wave of the country’s economic strength. It offered the Hainan local a break she may not have had otherwise.
“Competing with elite surfers wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago,” she says. “Now, even though we are not at a world level yet, at least we are here. It’s an encouraging message for the younger generations who want to surf.”
The support of Swatch has been pivotal to Liu’s pioneering sports for the sport in China, and the surfer is eager to praise the brand.
“Their sponsorship has helped me a lot in growing professionally,” she states. “They have introduced me to a wider audience and allowed me to travel to other countries. Most importantly, by promoting me as a surfer, they’ve helped make people in China more aware of surf culture.”
Helping to promote surfing, still very much a minority sport in her homeland, is a task Liu has taken to heart.
“I think surfing, and the surf culture that comes with it, can be a very positive thing for China,” she says. “Being in such close contact with nature makes you realize how lucky you are. It makes you appreciate things and have a brighter attitude towards life. When you’re riding a wave you think different, you act different. Surfing gives your brain a spin.”
This infectious enthusiasm has led Liu to open a surf school on Sanya Beach, where, during the summer months, she offers surfing courses to everyone from adults to teenagers and children, locals and tourists alike. The demand for lessons, she says, is high.
“Things have changed enormously since 2007. Back then it was mostly foreigners or people who already knew how to surf that would come down here to practice. Now there are lots of Chinese people who have simply read or heard about surfing, or who have tried it on their holidays abroad and want to actually get better at it in their home country – which is great.”
Liu expects the coming years to see even more people heading out to the waves in Hainan, and believes the surfing community will grow across China.
“Young people are increasingly open to trying surfing,” she says. “And I’m definitely having a good time. I love surfing – I can’t think of any reason to not want to pick up a surfboard – and that’s for both boys and girls.”
First appeared in That's Shanghai and That's Beijing magazines, March 2014.