His class was a favorite among Carleton College seniors and often had a list of students waiting to get into it.
Word quickly spread over the years about Prof. Qiguang Zhao’s class, “Taoist Way of Health and Longevity,” as passersby would see his lessons in action in the middle of the campus quad known as the Bald Spot. Zhao would take students there and guide them through the meditative and synchronized movements of tai chi.
His lessons garnered curious looks in China, too, where he often led study abroad programs and his students practiced tai chi at famous landmarks such as the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square.
Zhao, a professor who launched the Chinese language program at Carleton in the late 1980s, died in a swimming accident in Florida on March 13. He died a day before his 67th birthday, which he often noted was “Pi Day” (3-14), symbolism he relished.
The accident surprised his family because Zhao was an adept swimmer.
“He really loved to swim,” said his son, Zhiming Zhao, of Plymouth. “Any body of water he would see, he would jump in, even Lake Superior in the spring when it was quite cold.”
Zhao taught courses in Mandarin and Chinese poetry at Carleton and authored several books, including “Do Nothing and Do Everything: An Illustrated New Taoism” that applied the principles of Taoism to modern life.
“He was even more well known in China,” his son said, noting that Zhao was a frequent commentator on U.S.-China relations and American politics on Phoenix TV, a satellite Chinese network based in Hong Kong.
A native of Beijing, Zhao was born into an academic family. Both of his parents were physics professors.
He received a bachelor’s degree from Tianjin Normal University. Zhao came to the U.S. to continue his studies and earned a master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
In 1987, he moved to Northfield to help Carleton launch its Chinese language program. His classes became popular in part because of Zhao’s colorful stories about his own life, including growing up during the Cultural Revolution in China, and in his philosophical ruminations stemming from ancient texts.
“He touched students very deeply in terms of helping them grapple with the big questions of life and helping them think through those larger issues of spirituality and meaning,” said Carolyn Fure-Slocum, Carleton College’s chaplain.
Zhao was planning to begin phasing in retirement over the next few years.
In the past couple of years, he spent time contributing to a three-part documentary about the travels of Marco Polo that aired on Al-Jazeera (English). Carleton held a special screening of “Marco Polo: A Very Modern Journey” earlier this year.
“He was always interested in Marco Polo because he was one of the first intersections between the Western world and China,” said Zhiming Zhao, adding that the adventurer’s life resonated with his father, who made cultural exchanges one of the focuses of his own career.
Besides his son, Zhao’s survivors include his wife, Litao, of Northfield; brothers Qizheng and Qida of China; and granddaughter, Zoe, who was named after him and was born two days after his death.
Services have been held.