Students streamed across the Carleton College campus, intent on class or the library. Prof. Qiguang Zhao and his students seemed to be fighting the tide — in slow motion.
Arms and legs arced slowly as Zhao led his class through the intricacies of tai chi. They practiced outside in the grassy green of spring, as people would in his native China.
With wooden swords — which Zhao taught them to make — students moved through “sword dancing,” trying to be in the moment, the stress of term papers and finals melting away.
Zhao’s “Taoist Way of Health and Longevity” was one of the most popular classes at Carleton, in Northfield, Minn.
The impact of those peaceful hours was not fleeting. Over his 28-year career, many former students sent letters about how his lessons in mindfulness endured.
“They wrote to him how when they took the class, how they changed their lives. How they go to the campus to sit under the tree, thinking about life, and thinking about the class, thinking about life and death, about health and well-being, about family — those bigger issues, rather than just finish the homework,” said Litao Zhang, his widow.
In Chinese, his name meant Enlightenment, fitting for a man who launched the Chinese language program at Carleton in the late 1980s and whose 20 books included “Do Nothing and Do Everything: An Illustrated New Taoism.” He led student trips to China, bridging East and West.
“He was a truly international figure who had a sense of joy as well as careful scholarship,” recalled colleague Bardwell Smith, a retired religion professor.
After Zhao’s death, his family cleaned out his office at Carleton. They discovered a trove of letters from his students — and a few wooden swords.