She completed the 14th Belgrade High School and graduated in physics at the Pierre & Marie Curie University within the Sorbonne and in socio-cultural anthropology at the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris. She has spent the last two and a half years conducting her Ph.D. dissertation fieldwork at the Buddhist Shaolin Temple in China. She is a descendant of Njegoš, Blagoje Nešković and Mihailo Vučinić, and is proud of her ancestors and her parents.
Marta Nešković grew up in a family of scientists, doctors and professors. Her father, Nebojša Nešković, spent his entire working life at the Vinča Institute of Nuclear Sciences, where he spent many years managing the largest scientific project in the country, the important goal of which was to integrate Serbia into world science. Marta’s mother, Vesna Vučinić Nešković, is a professor at the University of Belgrade’s Faculty of Philosophy, where she lectures on urban anthropology. She has also presided over the World Council of Anthropological Associations.
Marta’s paternal grandfather, Blagoje Nešković, was a volunteer doctor in the Spanish Civil War, while during World War II he led the national liberation struggle in Serbia. After liberation, he was a senior political official in Serbia and Yugoslavia, and after leaving politics he returned to medicine and dedicated himself to research in the field of oncology. Marta’s paternal grandmother, Brana Perović Nešković, was also an active participant in the national liberation struggle in Serbia. She later opted for atomic physics and worked at the Vinča Institute until the end of her career, serving as its director. Marta was particularly inspired by her grandmother’s Montenegrin origin – because Brana Perović’s great-grandmother, Marija, the wife of Serdar Andrija Perović, was the sister of Petar II Petrović Njegoš, the spiritual and secular ruler of Montenegro and one of the greatest Serbian poets and philosophers.
Marta’s maternal grandfather, Mihailo Vučinić, was a co-founder and director of the Dedinje Institute for Cardiovascular Diseases. He studied to become a surgeon at the most important cardiovascular centres in the U.S. and Europe. In this way he enabled his own institute to establish an intensive exchange of experts and direct cooperation with these centres, which continues to this day. Lucija Vučinić, Marta’s maternal grandmother, was also a doctor. She taught microbiology and anatomy at the Medical High School in Belgrade. Marta’s brother is named Mihailo, which was the Partisan name of his paternal grandfather and the given name of his maternal grandfather. He is a successful young vascular surgeon at the Dedinje Institute for Cardiovascular Diseases.
Marta headed to study in France in September 2010, on her own initiative. There she first completed physics with mathematics at the Pierre & Marie Curie University in Paris, after which she completed master studies in socio-cultural anthropology at the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris [École des hautes études en sciences sociales]. She earned money during her studies by working at top Parisian restaurants, which allowed her to travel through India and China during the period from November 2015 to April 2016. Her aim was to find the most suitable place to conduct anthropological research of martial arts. In Pondicherry, India, she practised Kalaripayattu, while in China she visited the Wudang Mountains and the Shaolin Temple, where Kung Fu is practised. Upon returning to Belgrade, she decided to enrol in Ph.D. studies at the University of Belgrade’s Faculty of Philosophy, focusing on the connections between Chan Buddhism, Kung Fu and health at the Shaolin Monastery. She began her field research at this famous monastery in April 2018 and completed it in August 2020.
The upbringing she received in the home was not spontaneous and random, but rather directed in a specific way. And at the Shaolin Temple she encountered the idea that it is strict adherence to rules that provides freedom
Marta, who is now 28, became a Junior Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science in May 2016. Intelligent, tenacious and communicative, she is fluent in English, French and Mandarin. When asked about her fondest childhood memories for this presentation for CorD Magazine, she responded by saying:
“I recall long walks with my grandfather Mihailo Vučinić, who taught me and my brother Mihailo to distinguish between species of trees and birds, collect carob pods and chestnuts, ride rollerskates on Ada and ice-skate at Pioneer hall; generally to enjoy various activities outside the home. Our grandmother, Lucija Vučinić, taught us to enjoy the delicious dishes she prepared for us after those walks. One of the inspirations in playing with Mihailo was Chinese films about Kung Fu that mentioned the Shaolin Temple, where I’ve spent the last two years and four months.
“Throughout the whole of primary school our parents organised celebrations of mine and Mihailo’s birthdays with our classmates. We went to the McDonald’s restaurant, to the racecourse, to the park on Zvezdara Hill, and most often to the backyard of the house in Dedinje where my grandmother Brana Perović then lived.”
The upbringing she received in the home was based on several principles that relate to individual integrity and moral values, but also the role of the individual in society. And that upbringing was not spontaneous and random, but rather directed in a specific way. And at the Shaolin Temple she encountered the idea that it is strict adherence to rules that provides freedom.
She was an excellent pupil of both the Saint Sava Primary School and the 14th Belgrade High School. Apart from that, she was also sociable and engaged in a range of extracurricular activities – English and French languages, tennis, dance, acting and Taekwondo. Although she departed to study in France at the age of 18 and has spent most of her time abroad since, the basis of her worldview and understanding of her own identity were defined within the family environment. She also gained her need for a broad education from her home life. During one period of high school, the parents would sit, once a week, with both Mihailo and Marta to study various concepts from encyclopaedias, covering everything from mathematics, through history to fine art, and they would always do so with specific examples.
The value of Shaolin for my research lay in the tradition embedded in the daily lives of its monks. And in order to approach the monks one has to be patient, attend Kung Fu classes regularly and with devotion, and actively learn the Mandarin language
When Marta became aware of her family pedigree on both her parents’ sides, did she feel obliged to live up to it, or did it give her a sense of pride?
“I think it’s very important for an individual to be capable of appreciating their origins and the history of both their family and their nation. It is necessary to understand where one comes from in order to best select the goals one is striving towards and the path one should take. Of course I’m proud that my ancestors were a positive example, not only in the life of the family, but also in their contribution to the development of our nation and our country, as well as the broader international environment. As such, in a continuation of that tradition, I feel the need and obligation to provide the greatest possible contribution in the same direction. This certainly includes the obligation to maintain moral principles in both private and professional fields.”
Regardless of the extent to which her parents didn’t influence her professional choices, she nonetheless completed her undergraduate studies in physics, which is her father’s area of expertise, then later opted for anthropology, which is her mother’s field:
“I don’t think that was an accident, but rather that it shows the spontaneous influence of one’s environment on personal choice. I considered physics as an important and difficult discipline, with basic principles that I wanted to master and understand. It was a challenge for me. I enjoyed studying theoretical physics. However, after graduation, I concluded that my nature is nonetheless more suited to researching the characteristics of humans, society and cultural processes. I have a need to contribute to the development of knowledge in that area.”
She enrolled at the Pierre & Marie Curie University (which forms part of the Sorbonne University) due to her desire to study physics and because it seemed to her that Paris was the most attractive of the places on offer where she could live:
I think it’s very important for an individual to be capable of appreciating their origins and the history of both their family and their nation. It is necessary to understand where one comes from in order to best select the goals one is striving towards and the path one should take
“And I chose anthropology when I realised that I spent most of my free time during my studies in Paris researching the link between physical practises and spirituality, and I did so through training Taekwondo and the Art of Movement (l’Art du Déplacement), also known as Parkour. That independent and intimate research of mine corresponded to the research that’s conducted in socio-cultural anthropology.
That’s why I decided to deal with anthropology instead of physics, and thus enrolled in a two-year master’s programme at the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris [École des hautes études en sciences sociales], one of France’s great schools. I think that studying physics with mathematics had great significance for my education in general. I believe that it was through them that I developed a systematic approach to analysing scientific problems of any kind. I will continue to be interested in physics, but it can be said that shifting the focus of my further studies to anthropology meant abandoning my research in physics.”
Marta enrolled in Ph.D. studies at the Belgrade Faculty of Philosophy’s Department of Ethnology and Anthropology with the clear idea of dedicating her doctoral thesis to the relationship between Chan Buddhism, martial arts and health at China’s Shaolin Temple. She created a detailed research concept at the very beginning of her studies, studied the appropriate initial literature and wrote a series of seminar papers, thus laying the foundations for her fieldwork at the Shaolin Monastery:
“It was while travelling through China in the spring of 2016 that I visited the Shaolin Temple for the first time, with the aim of seeing if I would be able to conduct research there. The results of the conversations with the temple management following the visit were positive. After defending my proposal for the doctoral thesis, I arrived at the temple in April 2018, where I remained – with short breaks – until August 2020.”
I’m proud that my ancestors were a positive example, not only in the life of the family, but also in their contribution to the development of our nation and our country, as well as the broader international environment
“At the very beginning of my residence at the Shaolin Temple, it wasn’t clear to me what I could expect from working there. I decided not to take any firm stances in advance, because I believed that could disrupt my integration into the temple community, as a researcher. For the first few months, perhaps even the whole first year, I didn’t see the real Shaolin, because it is not composed of its buildings or most of the people that you meet during the average day, who include members of the community who are there for martial arts, monks who come from other monasteries to study for shorter periods and tourists. The value of Shaolin for my research lay in the tradition embedded in the daily lives of its monks. And in order to approach the monks one has to be patient, attend Kung Fu classes organised for foreign students regularly and with devotion, and actively learn the Mandarin language.”
At the Shaolin Temple, like any other Buddhist monastery, the rules of life are very precise. Every member of the community has their own position in the hierarchy and their own daily responsibilities. Free time is dedicated to self-cultivation with the help of Chan methods – meditation, Kung Fu practises, studies of classical Chinese philosophy (especially Buddhist), recitations of sutras (Buddhist texts), conversations over tea etc.
“The Shaolin Temple is home to around 300 religious monks and around 50 Kung Fu monks. The majority of the members of the Kung Fu monastic community are engaged in performances and promotions of Shaolin culture both in China and abroad. The circulation of members in that community is significant. A large number of members set out to society and establish various careers related to martial arts, while new members are constantly arriving. Around a hundred foreign students pass through the temple every year, often coming in organised groups, mostly from Italy, Spain, Germany, Russia and North and Latin America.
Groups stay at the temple for a week or two, while there are individuals from different parts of the world who stay for weeks and sometimes months. Apart from that, there are usually one or two foreign students staying at the temple for a longer period. In the groups that come during the summer, usually around a third of the members are girls. For the remaining months, I was usually the only girl at the temple. Shaolin also conducts a cultural exchange programme with African countries, so every year a larger group of students from those countries come during the three summer months to learn Kung Fu, but also to acquaint themselves with other aspects of Shaolin culture. I came to the temple on the basis of an agreement that was reached with its leadership after my visit to the temple in the spring of 2016.”
The abbot of the monastery, as well as many Kung Fu teachers, saw me as the granddaughter of Blagoje Nešković, Serbia’s first Prime Minister and the founder of the Communist Party of Serbia, and they often mentioned that fact. I think that contributed to me gaining a status with multiple meanings at Shaolin.
The Shaolin Temple is headed by His Holiness Shi Yongxin, the abbot of the temple. The hierarchy of the monastery is prescribed to the minutest detail and is adhered to absolutely. Every part of the monastery, house or hall, has its own elder who is in charge – he takes care to ensure daily chores are done and take care of the members of the community linked to him. The status of, and life at the Shaolin Temple – like any other religious institution in China – is determined by the religious policy rules of the People’s Republic of China. In this case, the Buddhist Association of China is in charge of enacting and implementing regulations:
“Over the course of the first year and a half, my day at Shaolin looked as follows: getting up at half past five in the morning, running or attending the morning recitation of sutras, returning to the room and eating breakfast, then the day’s first official Kung Fu training session, from half past eight to half past ten, then lunch. In the beginning I ate lunch in the kitchen of the hostel for foreign students, and later in the monastery’s dining room, where Kung Fu monks serve food to all members of the monastic community and guests of the monastery. After lunch is rest time, which I used for private Chinese language classes. The afternoon Kung Fu training session was from half past two until half past four, and was followed by dinner, served at half past five. I spent the rest of the time until the end of the day in additional Kung Fu training or doing work related to my doctorate.
“During the last nine months I devoted myself fully to my doctoral thesis. I was lucky that my next-door neighbours in the part of the temple where I lived were Kung Fu teachers, who were not only the perfect connoisseurs of this martial art, but also had the patience to further teach me and answer my questions related to the thesis. During this period I also attended Kung Fu training sessions on a daily basis, but they were shorter due to a lack of time. However, then the way I learned Kung Fu gained additional meaning. I can say that progress – not only in physical skill but also in understanding its spiritual component – was then much greater than it had been during group training. The monastery was completely isolated at the end of last winter and during this spring, due to the danger of spreading the COVID-19 virus – with no one able to enter or leave. That period was of the greatest importance for me when it came to understanding the Shaolin culture.”
Marta’s status at the Shaolin Temple changed over time. She initially belonged to a group of foreign students who practised Kung Fu, and she was treated as part of that community. As she engaged mostly in research during the final period, she kept a low profile, rarely leaving the part of the temple where she lived, trained and wrote. She didn’t want the members of the monastic community to feel like she was constantly analysing them, which could have created distance in their daily relationship, which after such a long time had become natural and relaxed:
“The abbot of the monastery, as well as many Kung Fu teachers, also saw me as the granddaughter of Blagoje Nešković, Serbia’s first Prime Minister and the founder of the Communist Party of Serbia, and they often mentioned that fact. I think that contributed to me gaining a status with multiple meanings at Shaolin. I believe that it was because of this status within the monastery that I got the opportunity to participate in several Chinese shows and documentaries, made by the Fourth Channel of Chinese Central Television (CCTV-4), the Xinhua News Agency and the Beijing Film Academy.”
While working on her doctoral thesis, what was proved most interesting to her was that which was the hardest to get. And that is recognizing and comprehending all aspects of preserving, transmitting and further developing the traditional knowledge and experience of Shaolin through reserach of all layers of that exceptional phenomenon. The monastery is the place of origin of Chan Buddhism and the maintaining of the tradition of Chan practise; a place where traditional fighting techniques are preserved and where Chan medicine was created, while at the same time it is a place of popular and political-diplomatic tourism. Understanding the depth of Shaolin culture represents a major scientific challenge:
“I want to continue conducting anthropological research in the future and, if I obtain the opportunity, to work with students. I certainly plan to continue furthering my knowledge in the field of Chinese culture, and I would also like to deal with comparative research and the issues of cultural exchange between Serbia and China.”