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Mark Wasson - An Important, Troubled Chen Taiji Trailblazer Passes Away

I tell my stories and explain my experiences so that other people might gain insight that helps them in their martial art journey. This is the kind of story you don't read very often. It is about one of my teachers, and it is not pleasant. But I think you know by now that I try to keep it real. So here goes. 

Ken&SifuWeb
Mark Wasson (left) in 2005 when he certified me with Chen Xiaoxing's Chen Village Taijiquan School.

I first heard of Mark Wasson when he wrote an article for Tai Chi Magazine on his experiences training in the Chen Village. He was about my age (I am now 60 and he may have been 61). In one ten-year span, he made 15 trips to the birthplace of Taijiquan to get down and dirty, sweat, work, train, have bones broken, and to get deep insights into the real art of Taiji. I met him after I had been training for a few years with my first Chen Taiji teachers, Jim and Angela Criscimagna. 

Mark Wasson was a deeply troubled man, but a pioneer and trailblazer who introduced a lot of people to Chen Taiji. He passed away over a month ago from complications of Crohn's Disease, which he battled for decades. His death has hardly been mentioned. There was no obituary in the paper. No service was announced. He simply disappeared. It does not surprise me.

As I learned after becoming his student, his physical illness was not as damaging as his internal demons.

Around 2003, I made a business trip to San Francisco to meet with national education reporters on behalf of ACT (I was the Director of Media Relations for the college test company). I had been intriqued by his article in Tai Chi Magazine describing his training in the Chen Village, so I contacted Mark to see if he would give me a private lesson if I drove to his home in Livermore, California. He quickly agreed, so I drove an hour or more to his apartment, parked next to his motorcycle, and we went down the street to a driveway behind a store. He asked me to perform Laojia Yilu, and within two or three moves he stopped me and stepped in to demonstrate. 

Ken-Gullette-Mark-Wasson-2005
Training with Mark during one of his visits to our home in Moline, IL.

His instruction was very helpful, and he was nice enough, but he was as serious as a heart attack and rarely smiled. It didn't matter what subject came up, he was obviously an expert, and he never stopped talking. 

"How did it go?" Nancy asked me when I returned back to our hotel in San Francisco. I told her it was great, and I learned a lot, but I also told her, "Mark is very good, and he's a good teacher, but something isn't right."

"Your gut feelings about people are always right," she reminded me.

Mark told me he was a disciple of Chen Xiaowang's. He claimed that the Chen family practically adopted him and gave him a nickname -- "Dama." I didn't think to question it, but a few years later, when Chen Xiaowang listed his disciples, Mark's name was not on the list. By that time, he had become very close with Chen Xiaoxing. He was also close to Chen Bing, and when I finally met Chen Bing in Chicago at a Push Hands workshop, I told him I was a student of Dama.

"Dama?" Chen Bing said happily. From that moment, he spent a lot of time working with me during the workshop.

So despite a reservation or two, it wasn't long before I became Mark Wasson's student. I wanted to improve and learn Chen Taiji, and I saw that he had the skill and knowledge to help. In the next 3 years, I learned a lot and took plenty of notes every time I was able to meet with Mark. I flew to California to train, and while he and I practiced on one occasion, Nancy and Mark's wife, Julia (a very nice Chinese girl who was not his first wife) visited together, and we all had dinner before Nancy and I returned to our hotel in San Francisco.

Nancy and I hosted Mark at our school in Bettendorf, Iowa, where we would fly him in and he would do a workshop, then train with me at home. Each visit, my ears would be nearly bleeding as I took him to catch his plane to return home. He usually began speaking and lecturing the moment he arrived and did not stop until he was gone. Nancy and I both recognized it as a possible sign of being bi-polar. We had both known people who had suffered from this condition. They could go from pleasant one moment to violent anger the next. They were very unpredictable. This made me remain cautious.

As a student, I tried to become Mark's friend. He had shot video teaching a "Chen 34 Form" that he designed (and he said had been approved by Chen Xiaowang) and I volunteered to edit the DVD at no charge. I did, and I produced it and burned the copies. He sent them to Tai Chi Magazine to sell in their pages. 

I shot and edited another DVD for him on fighting applications, spending many days on the shooting and editing. I helped him set up a PayPal account so he could sell DVDs through his website. It worked, too. He sold DVDs. I charged him nothing. I was happy to help my teacher.

In 2005, Chen Xiaoxing came to America on one of his first visits (he was not an enthusiastic traveler, preferring to stay in Chen Village, but Chen Xiaowang urged him to spread Chen throughout the world). His first stop was Mark's apartment in Livermore. Mark invited me out to spend a day training with Chen Xiaoxing. I jumped at the chance, despite the costs. Nancy supported it all the way. It was a great day of training and corrections. Life was good.

I volunteered to take over Mark's website because I could make changes that he wanted a lot quicker than the person who was doing it at the time. I also had a better ability to look at the site with a marketing perspective. So he would call me with an idea for a change or a photo he wanted to add, or a video, and I would put it up. No problem. I was happy to do it.

Chen CertificateWebMark was working with Chen Xiaoxing to certify teachers in the United States who would be directly connected to the Chen Village Taijiquan School run by Chen Xiaoxing. I paid the fee -- $350 (there is always a fee in Taiji) -- and was awarded a certificate to put on the wall of my school. I was very proud. I believe I was the first person to receive a certificate in the U.S. certifying me by the Chen Village School.

In early 2006, Mark made his third visit to our home, and he brought Chen Xiaoxing with him. Mark had asked me to sponsor Chen Xiaoxing's visa to do his tour in America because it was an exhausting ordeal and the government required every piece of financial and personal data you had. They did a pretty good check. So I sent Mark all of my personal and financial data -- social security numbers, tax statements -- you name it. I deeply regretted this later, but at the time, it seemed to be the right thing to do.

It helped Chen Xiaoxing get his visa, and in return, he agreed to spend a week at our home. Chen Xiaoxing did a workshop on Laojia Yilu at our school and he trained me in my basement at home. Mark helped interpret at home -- he had a rudimentary understanding of Chinese terms. I had studied Pimsleur CDs on Mandarin for weeks in anticipation, but every time I said something to Chen Xiaoxing he would look at Mark as if asking, "What the HELL is he saying?" It was pretty funny.

Chen Xiaoxing was a no-nonsense kind of guy -- a peasant farmer who had become highly skilled in Taiji but was much more comfortable chain-smoking on the back patio instead of trying to engage in conversation. He did not know a word of English and didn't seem to care. But we did have some great practices, and he giggled like a little boy when Mark, CXX and I played magnetic darts in the basement. I gave him my dart set as a gift when he left.

After they left town, I saw the young Chinese woman who served as the interpreter at the Chen Xiaoxing workshop. She was one of my Taiji students. Mark always talked about how close he and Chen Xiaoxing were, and he did a lot to help CXX. But during the workshop, she heard something else.

WassonDay1Web
Students who attended Mark Wasson's workshop at our school.

"Chen Xiaoxing hates Mark Wasson," she told me at the next class. "Every time Mark explained something to the class, he would ask me what Mark said. When I told him, he said something like, "He doesn't know what the hell he's talking about." She was stunned, but we both learned a lesson -- it doesn't matter what you do to help some Taiji people, they will never appreciate it or give you any credit. It wasn't the first time I had seen Chen Xiaoxing behave in a way that I would not have expected in a master who is placed on a pedestal by so many around the world.

A week after Chen Xiaoxing left town, Mark called and asked if I wanted to be his disciple. Not Chen Xiaowang's disciple, not Chen Xiaoxing's disciple -- Mark Wasson's disciple. He also started referring to himself as a "master," even though up until then, he had been critical of Americans who called themselves by that title.

This was not what I wanted. Despite the questions I had about his mental fitness, I was not looking for a daddy. I didn't need a father figure. I just wanted to learn Taiji. 

"Mark, I appreciate the offer, but that really isn't what I'm looking for," I told him. "I just want to learn from you and help you become more successful."

Within two weeks, he went ballistic. He called and was very angry, saying crazy things about me and even about Nancy. Now, I can take a lot of stuff about me, but Nancy bent over backwards -- and it cost her a lot of money, too -- for me to support Mark Wasson.

This went on a couple of phone calls. I was shocked, but I was not about to take that kind of crap, even from my teacher. I told him I was no longer his student and I told him very clearly where he could shove his certificate. And I told him he could make his own DVDs and do his own website. I packed up all his materials, put all the files on CDs and DVDs, and mailed him everything.

Within a month, he sent an email to the Human Resources Director of ACT. Yes, my employer. He told ACT in an email that I had used company computers to hack into his website, and he said Nancy had hit on him when he was visiting our home.

The HR Director called me in to his office. I knew Jim Friel pretty well. He understood I couldn't have used company computers for that purpose, and he knew me well enough to know that this was a mentally disturbed person making the allegations. Mark followed up with a second email, full of more crazy rants.

ACT threatened Mark with legal action if he did not cut it out. Fortunately, he did. At least in that form.

Mark Wasson Taiji TeacherUntil sometime in the last year or so, I received long, critical emails from time to time. They were written under phony names and always used email addresses through an anonymous company. I'm pretty good at tracking people down, and none of the people existed. The detail and the language used in the emails was a dead giveaway. It was Mark.

He went onto national martial arts discussion boards under phony names, badmouthing me. I saw them (Google Alerts for your own name are very helpful) and he was even kicked off of a couple of discussion boards when the administrators realized what he was doing as recently as 2011. I sent him occasional emails, telling him that I knew what he was doing, and as I grew more successful and well-known, doesn't he understand it reflects badly on him, as one of my teachers, to badmouth me? Wouldn't it make more sense to have a good relationship? I urged him to settle down and get over it. He never responded.

The harassment stopped a year or so ago, I assume as he became more ill.

And so that is my recollection of Mark Wasson, a talented, devoted Tai Chi student and teacher who could not live up to his potential -- not because of the Crohn's Disease that eventually killed him, but because of the bi-polar, manic condition that alienated people who tried to be his friend or student. I was not his only target. Others have told me that he would talk with John Doe about Jeff Doe, then go tell Jeff all the bad things that John was saying about him. Mark worked to drive wedges between people in Taiji.

There is one more memory. Early this year, Chen Xiaoxing came to Chicago to teach Xinjia Yilu. The big room was full of people from around the country. Suddenly, standing next to me, Mark Wasson observed as I followed Chen Xiaoxing along with the rest of the class. After a couple of minutes, Mark approached me.

"Do the move this way," he said, demonstrating. "Your right arm should be here."

I stopped him cold and stared him straight in the eyes. "Mark, you need to give your advice to someone else," I said in my best Dirty Harry voice. "And you should stay away from me at this workshop."

He backed off, alarmed. "I can do that," he said.

For years, I expected that the next time I saw him, I would challenge him to either apologize or fight. When I saw that he looked near death, pale and thin, those thoughts dissipated. But I was very close.

For the rest of the day, if he was standing on one side of the room, I managed to practice on the other side. That was the last I saw of him.

This is a cautionary tale that you should think about when you meet any new martial arts instructor. The job attracts people who are controlling, egotistical, emotional unstable, and people who want others to see them as powerful and mystical, even supernatural. Don't check your brains at the door, and never, ever put a teacher up on a pedestal.

Mark Wasson was a devoted father of a severely handicapped daughter, with a combination of Cerebral Palsy and autism. His last wife, Julia, was a very nice person who must have withstood a lot. Mark took quite a few people to Chen Village where they could see the real thing in action. He helped the Chen family come to the U.S. and helped our understanding of Taijiquan skyrocket. He helped the Chen family show that mysticism isn't behind Taiji -- it is a tough martial art. He was willing to work hard, suffer injuries, and he developed a lot of skill.

On my road as a martial artist, Mark Wasson was an important milestone, leaving me with more skill than I had before, but with much more understanding of just how controlling and disturbed some people can be who set themselves up as teachers.

And now you know why I have remained "independent" since 2006. I claim no discipleship. I have no interest in a master-slave relationship. Mark Wasson is the reason why. I have not even mentioned him as one of my teachers very often, for fear of triggering a string of negative emails or chat room outbursts.

I am glad his troubled soul has found eternal rest. But it is a shame when your departure from this world lifts a shadow from the lives of others. I am sad because of the lost potential, and sad that a man with such potential died alone.

Comments

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Jim Criscimagna

Thanks for writing your experiences with Mark Wasson. I know it was not easy for you to do. I, too, had my encounters with the guy. Yes, he was a very troubled man to say the least. Angie and I are grateful to him for taking us to CJG the first time in 2005. We were supposed to go back to CJG a few months later with Mark and Julia, but I was in a motorcycle accident and was unable to go (was in ICU for ten days, had surgery on my knee). Mark was really upset and said we cost him money for the trip because we were pulling out. He had out passports (he was getting the visas) and decided to burn them to get back at us (something he later admitted to us). We did resolve our differences in 2006 in CJG and saw each other a few times during private classes in SF. I never allowed him close again and kept my distance. He did a lot for Chen Taiji and the Chen family, but unfortunately his personality turned most people off. A troubled man indeed. Rest in peace, Mark. I know, for many of us, but as Ken said above, "it is a shame when your departure from this world lifts a shadow from the lives of others". Well said Ken, and so true.

molly bang

Mark taught classes here in Livermore, both for the elderly at a retirement home and at a sports club, and he was a rigid but excellent teacher, always ready to help a student. Thank you for letting us know about his passing. I am so sorry to find this out.
Molly

Peter Zoll

Do you recollect where Mark lived before Livermore? I met him twice some time in the 1990s I think, but I can't recall the year. He was really obnoxious, at least to me. For some reason he was obsessed with pushing hands with me. He followed me part of the way home one time, and later berated me during a saber practice. I sheathed the blade, and really unleashed some serious Fa Jin on him. My teacher was not sympathetic to me losing my temper. Nevertheless, I am told every once in a while Mark was capable of great insights. I seem to recall that he had some sort of back or shoulder problem as well as Crohn's and bipolar challenges.

Ken

Peter, I don't know where he was before Livermore, CA. Your experience with him mirrors other people. Some of them have messaged me privately. I try not to be angry when I think about Mark. He was mentally ill, and nobody chooses to be mentally ill. I try to tell myself it wasn't really his fault. That's the most positive thing we can think about Mark Wasson -- that plus the fact that he really did work hard to develop taiji skill, and he was willing to pass along his knowledge. He just couldn't overcome the darkness.

Peter Zoll

I was somewhat surprised to see that his internet domain had expired. I would infer either that is what he wanted or no combination of family and students chose to preserve his teachings and articles. If it is the latter that's rather sad. Were his videos and whatever else he recorded selling? I don't know of a tribute site built by students or colleagues either. That's not usually an encouraging sign

Ken

His website died long before he did. I believe he either did not have the money to maintain it, or he didn't have anyone to maintain it for him. In fact, I don't know that anyone did anything after I stopped volunteering as his website manager. His DVDs sold primarily through Tai Chi Magazine. They charge too much because they take half the money. I copied DVDs for Mark a couple of times so he could send them to Tai Chi Magazine. Produced his DVDs, too. I still have them somewhere, plus some raw video that I shot of some taiji applications. It's pretty clear why no one has built a tribute site, isn't it? After all, he was not a master -- he was a good student of the arts and a teacher who gave good information but destroyed all his relationships. Not sure who would want to pay for a tribute site.

Peter Zoll

I first saw GM Chen Xiaowang in person at a banquet in San Francisco's Chinatown in either late 1988 or early 1989. Sad to say, none of who were there can recall either the restaurant name or the date. I don't know if Mark had anything to do with inviting or making arrangements. Do you have any rough idea when Mark started travelling to China and inviting masters here? My feeling is he was way ahead of most of us on those two concepts. Did Mark ever show you one or more certificates from some Chen Family GM documenting that Mark was proficient at Lao or Xin Jia? Or that Mark was certified to teach? Do you have any sense who or when Mark might have started learning Chen Family TCC? I have asked some of the older generation of Chen style teachers in the Bay Area and they have all said he was not a student of theirs. It was an odd reaction as, for example, an essay of Mark's is on GM Wing Lam's website (WLE.com)

Ken

Mark had skill and he had good information to teach. He went to the Chen Village many times and took a lot of Americans to introduce them to that level of training. He helped bring CXW and CXX to the U.S. and he accompanied CXX to my home when CXX did a workshop at my school and stayed at our house for a week. When I went to Chicago to meet Chen Bing at a push hands workshop, Mark told me to tell him I was a student of "Dama," his nickname in the Chen Village. I told this to Chen Bing through the interpreter and Chen Bing's face lit up. "Dama?" he asked, smiled real big and worked with me during the workshop than he would have. Mark worked with Chen Xiaoxing to certify teachers here in the U.S. and I was one, but due to Mark's personality, I don't think it went very far. I didn't see any certificates but I didn't ask because I could tell Mark had the goods. I didn't ask my first Chen teachers, either (Jim and Angela Criscimagna) but they also hosted CXW and RGY, and they also had skill. I think there are others who are disciples of CXW and CXX who would also agree Mark had skill and was instrumental in their becoming disciples. In fact, I have heard from some of them through my Facebook page. A year ago when CXX was in Chicago, Mark showed up, much to my dismay, but he was treated with respect by CXX, and he was recognized at the workshop as being an important reason that CXX was there. So the fact that some older generation Chen style teachers in the Bay Area would not recognize him could be politics, or they were simply in another lineage and either didn't know him or didn't want to know him. It doesn't really matter. I first heard of Mark when he wrote an article for Tai Chi Magazine about training in the Chen Village. He could have achieved greater things if he had been mentally and physically healthy.

Patti Burgess

Ken, I can answer the questions posed here. I went to high school with him, and was married to him for 17 years: 1983-2000
He was born 1-17-54
Didn't practice tai chi from 84-96. What would you like to know? I moved from the bay area in 2006, after our disabled daughter turned 21, and I had proof that he had been remarried for a while...all while I paid spousal support...so I'm only good for the start of it all.
Namaste,

Ken

Hi Patti,
Thank you for posting. It is nice to meet you. As you can see, others had similar experiences to mine, and I'm sure your experiences were pretty intense.

Can you shed light on his issues? The rage, the constant talking, and the discipleship question? Was he a disciple of Chen Xiaowang?

Jim Collins

Ken, Just stumbled across your post. I studied with Mark for a few years here in Livermore. I always wondered what had happened to him. I am sorry to hear he passed away. Every thing you say rings true and fills in a few blanks. I never heard him talk bad about you. But I was fading away around the time the trouble probably started. I have to say I learned a lot about Tai Chi from Mark and was able to meet some of his teachers. A lot of what I learned dovetailed nicely into my other practice. But after a few years he stopped doing push hands and working applications with me. So along with the personality issues it was time to move on. Thanks for posting this information.

Ken

Thanks, Jim.

Terry W. Baer

Thank you for your article. A bit surprised. I didn't know that Mark had died. He did once say to me that he expected Crohn's disease to take his life one day.I'm from Livermore and I was a student of Mark's briefly from 1995 to 1997 if my memory is correct. He was teaching Wu style at the time twice weekly at a local school and fighting applications in his backyard at his home in Springtown in Livermore.He grew up in San Jose,CA where he started first in Gung-Fu then Tai Chi after his Crohn's disease reared its ugly head.He always chewed gum slowly as he watched with his cold light blue-Gray eyes. His Tai Chi was impressive.l have downloaded some of your works Ken. Thank you so much for sharing. A great treasure. But nothing beats a good teacher. Terry

Anthony Harris

I took classes from Mark. At that time he was teaching me WU style. Chen was soft he said. Wu was more martial. I studied in the local park to his house. I went to his house for training in push hands, I remember him sweeping me off my feet....it was so fast and so funny. I had dinner at his house with him and his entire family. They really are great. Yet how he treated them in front of me was wrong. I just kept thinking of a quote "get your foot off her throat, Hitler" all the time I was there.
Mark was a great teacher, his knowlege will be sorely lost. I just was so turned off by how he treated his wife. His wife and daughter were so amazing, not to mention his handicapped daughter. I think she was the only thing that taught him humility. Oh, his wife was amazing with both of them, one of the most amazing people I've met in my life. Ironic, in a way.

Tim Schober

Thank you for posting this. I, too, was a student of Mark's, at the same time as Jim Collins (see post above). Jim and I even met during lunch a few times a week to practice. I am sad to hear of Mark's passing. I moved out of California for work, so my relationship with him never got past the student/teacher phase and did not experience any of his outbursts. I agree he was always down to business, and since you mentioned it, I don't think I ever saw him smile. I also attended a workshop with Chen Xiaoxing. If memory serves me correctly, I believe it was the one in 2005 you wrote about. I am glad to have had those experiences, and to have learned what I did. Similar to Jim, I have found where Tai Chi compliments other martial arts I learned.

I wish Mark a peaceful rest.

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