How a Canadian became China's most famous foreigner
Mark Rowswell aka Dashan is a household name to over a billion people and one of China’s most beloved public figures.
Just the Basics
Mark Rowswell has been entertaining Chinese audiences for three decades, making him the country’s most famous foreign and the face of Canada in China
Rowswell has become an invaluable asset for Canada and a goodwill ambassador promoting friendly ties between China and Canada
Rowswell is no mouthpiece for the Chinese government; his astute and nuanced understanding of Chinese culture and language offers vital insights into modern China
Whether on television or beaming down from an illuminated billboard, the face of Dashan, one of China’s most famous personalities can be found throughout the country. Almost a billion people have been entertained by Dashan’s work in the entertainment industry since the late 1980s, making him a household name in the world’s most populous country - a feat any celebrity would be envious of: Chinese TV execs estimate that around eighty percent of Chinese (or more than a billion people) can recognize Dashan. Between hosting national TV events (he has hosted the National New Year Gala four times, the only non-Chinese to do so) and appearing in commercials for large multinationals like Ford, Dashan is also helping bring stand-up comedy to China.
Whille Dashan has spent many years living in Beijing and would be considered by many locals as a favoured son, he originally hails from farther afield. Dashan is the stage name of Mark Rowswell, originally from Ottawa, who has gone from exchange student to China’s most famous foreigner over the past thirty years. Rowswell’s profile in Canada is virtually non-existent, except perhaps among the Chinese-Canadian community: he barely has 10,000 followers on Twitter. On the other hand he has millions of followers on Weibo and WeChat, China’s two social media giants.
Rowswell’s journey to Chinese stardom began in a humble camera store in Ottawa in 1979, where he began learning some Chinese phrases from a fellow employee, a refuge from China. Rowswell originally began learning Chinese as a way to entertain himself and surprise the Chinese customers that came to the store. The more he learned about the language and culture and more it became an integral part of his life. Rowswell would go on to earn a degree in Chinese studies from the University of Toronto, before moving to China in the late 1980s as an exchange student at the prestigious Peking University.
Rowswell first came to the attention of the Chinese media when scouts from state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) came to the university looking for foreigners who spoke Chinese. Rowswell natural charisma and impressive grasp of Mandarin saw him propelled to national attention by appearing in the 1988 CCTV New Year’s Special, a program with 550 million viewers. Rowswell wowed Chinese audiences by holding his own against and even besting established Chinese word smiths in various xiangsheng routines. Xiangsheng translates as cross-talk and is a fast paced dialogue based comedy relying on wordplay and witticisms, somewhat comparable to the routines of Western performers such as Abbott and Costello. Considered beyond the capabilities of most native Chinese speakers, let alone foreigners, xiangsheng is considered the pinnacle of word-smithery.
Dashan well aware of the intricacies of being a foreigner in China
Rowswell’s ready charm and linguistic skills combined with his appearance as one of the first Westerners on Chinese television transformed him into a household name. Rowswell chose to name his public persona Dashan - or big mountain, a pun on his height. Speaking on this choice, Rowswell explains that “[Dashan] is a peasant name, the kind of name you pick for your child if you’re illiterate. It’s like ‘Billy Bob.’” What strikes those who watch Rowswell’s interviews about his time in China and role in Chinese media is his acute awareness of the nuances and ramifications of his position. Dismissed by some Western critics as a ‘dancing monkey’ - an allegation which Rowswell says borders on racism (how could a foreigner possibly entertain a Chinese audience but by playing the fool?) - Dashan is not a one dimensional phenomenon.
Another criticism levelled against Rowswell by some outside China is that he is operating in a circumscribed environment, a toothless performer in an authoritarian state. Critics of China’s political and human rights situation wonder why Rowswell is not more outspoken about the crimes of the Chinese government. In response, Rowswell explains that average Chinese are fully aware of the shortcomings of their government, but “to be honest, Chinese cultural acceptance of foreign political criticism is almost nil.” Complaints about the government which a Chinese celebrity could voice and find a receptive audience for are effectively off-limits for foreigners like Rowswell.
In response, Rowswell notes that “because [of] our Western cynicism toward China, anyone who says anything positive about China is looked at sceptically.” Nevertheless, Rowswell is no apologist for Beijing, as he fell in love with the people (his wife is Chinese) and culture of China, not its government. From the very beginning of his rise to fame in China, Rowswell has been faced with the idiosyncrasies and compromises of working in China. Shortly after his breakthrough in Chinese television, Rowswell experienced the crackdown following the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. “In the space of a few weeks, I saw the best and worst that China has to offer. Everything that was beautiful and inspiring and promising about China. And everything that was ugly and dark about China, all together.”
Whereas many foreigners left the country in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Rowswell stayed, something which earned him high praises from many Chinese politicians and ordinary Chinese as well. Viewed as a true friend of China and the Chinese people for not abandoning the country in 1989. Rowswell’s decision to stay became a defining moment for his Chinese audience. Nevertheless, Rowswell is well aware of the implications of his decisions to stay; “That’s the original sin of Dashan: when everyone else left China, Dashan stayed,” Rowswell tells The Globe and Mail.
Conversely, some have characterized Dashan as a subversive character, and Rowswell as a daring comic risking censor or worse for performing in an authoritarian regime. As with other sweeping assertions regarding the Dashan character, Rowswell dismisses claims that he is someone living on the edge, just one step ahead of the Chinese thought police. Rowswell tailors his performances to the Chinese market, and as such is keenly aware of which Chinese norms not to transgress against. The aforementioned aversion to foreign criticism is one such norm, and like any entertainer, Rowswell wants to keep his audience from booing him; “in short, I don’t have to worry about what government censors might say because Chinese audiences would never let me get that far anyway.”
For instance, while residing in China during the early years of the Harper government and said government’s frosty attitude to China, Rowswell saw the hole Harper dug for himself in 2006-2008 first hand. During those years, Rowswell often encountered comments from the man on the street along the lines of - “What’s wrong with your Prime Minister? Why does he hate us? I thought we were friends right? What’s wrong with this guy?” Criticism of Chinese government policies were perceived as direct criticism by many ordinary Chinese, even if many of those same individuals held similar opinions regarding Beijing.
Using comedy to build bridges
Rowswell explains that Western audiences tend to appreciate subversive comics or view comics as a class as subversive, whereas that style of comedy is not popular in China: Rowswell points to Jerry Seinfeld as an example of a non-subversive comedian who nevertheless is highly popular. Rowswell latest endeavour is helping jump-start the stand-up comedy scene in China, as the art form increasingly leaks into the wider Chinese community from its initial seeds in various expat-dominated comedy clubs in tier one cities like Shanghai and Beijing. Rowswell says he began to notice this trend in 2012, and is recent years has performed routines throughout China, whether at agro-chemical companies in Heilongjiang province or casinos in Macau.
By 2014, Rowswell was staging guerilla performances in Chinese universities, billing his appearances as ‘humorous lectures,’ delighting the thousands of students that attended: Chinese university officials eventually caught on and clamped down, but not before Dashan instilled a curiosity about his new undertaking, and stand up in general, among tens of thousands of young Chinese. Moreover, in 2017 Dashan was the only Mandarin-language performance at the Sydney Comedy Festival, the third largest comedy event in the world.
Hundreds of millions of Chinese have grown up watching Dashan on TV, with Rowswell’s persona occupying a position in the collective Chinese psyche akin to Mr. Rogers or Dick van Dyke - a nostalgic, comforting, familiar face that everyone can enjoy. Many Chinese are torn between pride in their history and growing economic and political power, and a deep-rooted inferiority complex and collective sense of humiliation thanks to China’s experience with colonialism. To fully understand Dashan’s impact it is worth quoting Rowswell at length:
“Dashan represents or symbolizes something very powerful to a Chinese audience [...] Chinese have a very complex and conflicting view of themselves and the world at large. They have a very strong self-identity and sense of pride, and this leads to a strong sense of ‘us vs them’ of being misunderstood and misaligned by the rest of the world, or the West in particular, as well as a strong sense that they are gradually losing their language and culture in the process of globalization. In the face of this, Dashan represents a Westerner who appreciates and respects China, who has learned the language and understands the culture and has even become ‘more Chinese than the Chinese.’ It’s a very powerful and reassuring image that appeals to deep rooted emotions.”
Part of this appeal stems from Dashan’s Canadian roots, as he is one of the few Canadian celebrities which Chinese are aware of as Canadian, rather than as famous people who, tangentially, are Canadian. In this Rowswell is helped by another famous Canadian, Norman Bethune, the doctor who aided the Red Army during the Chinese civil war and has since become a household name in China as well as prime example of friendly Sino-Canadian relations.
Dashan’s non-judgemental and generous nature is in keeping with the spirit of Bethune, so much so that after his rise to fame in China, Rowswell recalls one Canadian diplomat saying in the early 1990s that “the best thing about Dashan is that finally, thank God, we have a second topic to discuss during all these endless banquets.” Small talk in China is very ritualized, with Dashan a safe and culturally acceptable topic for Chinese engaging with Westerners in China learning Chinese, or when Canada is mentioned. Again Rowswell is the first to make fun of himself, noting that many Canadians in China are probably as sick of hearing about him as they are of Bethune.
Rowswell also partly attributes his success to his ‘Canadianness,’ explaining that “Canadians have a much weaker self-identity than Americans. We don’t have a strong mainstream culture of our own, which I think makes us more culturally malleable. When Canadians come to China, we don’t do things ‘the Canadian way’ because nobody has the slightest idea what ‘the Canadian way’ is. So we tend to adapt pretty well to different cultures.”
How Mark Rowswell became ‘Mr. Canada’, helping Ottawa navigate China for 30 years
The association between Dashan and Canada in the minds of ordinary Chinese has made Rowswell an invaluable asset in promoting Canadian businesses and culture to the world’s most populous country. Rowswell has done ads for everything from Nortel gadgets to Saskatchewan potash. Rowswell has also lent his voice to a series of products aimed at teaching Canadians Chinese; he also voiced the Chinese language audio tour of the National Art Gallery in Ottawa which was launched in 2011, in part to increase Chinese tourist numbers.
Rowswell has long been a staple of Canadian trade mission and political visit since the Mulroney era: Rowswell has present for Joe Clark’s (as foreign minister) 1992 visit - the first since Tiananmen Square. Recalling those early days, Rowswell states that “back then, people were talking about do we really want to engage with China, do we engage or do we not engage. I think by now that question has just become a fantasy. It’s like saying do we want to engage with America or not?”
Recalling the time he was mistaken for Justin Trudeau by tourism officials at the Dujiangyan world heritage site, Rowswell explains that by and large few people in China known much about Canada’s leaders. Staff at the UNESCO site maintained that Rowswell had visited before, pointing to a 1990 photo of a young Justin Trudeau accompanying his father on a visit to China. The Trudeau brand is definitely the most recognizable one in China, as the social media frenzy surrounding Canada’s photogenic PM did not leave China unscathed. Together with memories of Pierre Trudeau, Trudeau’s trip to 2016 trip to China to attend the G20 saw Chinese netizens affectionately bestow the nickname ‘Little Potato” (Trudeau sounds like the Mandarin word for potato; the diminutive part comes about from being Pierre Trudeau’s son). Speaking to the National Post, Rowswell explains that “[Pierre] Trudeau was a celebrity,” explains Rowswell. “People in China do they remember who Brian Mulroney was? No. Chretien wasn’t really a celebrity. Harper? No.”
In recognition of his bridge building efforts, Rowswell has received many awards from both China and Canada. From the Chinese side he was voted one of the Outstanding People of the Past 20 Years by China’s New Weekly Magazine, and in 2004 he became the first foreigner to be chosen as one of Ten Outstanding Young Adults of Beijing - one of the highest awards granted by Beijing authorities. In 2008, Rowswell garnered the White Magnolia Award for best supporting actor for his role in The Dinner Game, the first time a foreigner won one of China’s most prestigious performing arts awards. The National Film Board of Canada produced a documentary about his role in China in 1995, and TIME Magazine selected him as one of the Leaders for the 21st Century in 1999. In 2000, the University of Toronto selected him as one of the 100 Alumni Who Shaped the Century. Alongside several honorary degrees from Canadian universities, Rowswell was given the key to the city of Ottawa in 2006 and inducted into the Order of Canada in 2007.
The Bottom Line
Perhaps the best example of bilateral recognition came in 2008, when Dashan was made an honorary citizen of Shangqui, Henan (his grandparents had worked there in a hospital in the 1920s), where he was a torch bearer for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. During that time he was also the official attaché for Team Canada, entering the stadium with them during the opening ceremony: he also wrote the Dashan Guide to Beijing for Team Canada, and starred in a English crash course video series for Beijing residents. Alongside being the official face of the Canadian pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo, Dashan was a regular feature of Olympic programming introducing Canada to Chinese in the run up to the 2010 games in Vancouver.
Mark Rowswell’s ever evolving career in Chinese entertainment has ensured that he has not ossified into a pigeon-holed performer or an irrelevant reminder of years past. Rowswell and his Dashan persona continue to be at the forefront of China’s changing media landscape, and his efforts to introduce Canada to China and vice versa have been a lifeline to bilateral efforts aimed at establishing friendly relations for almost three decades. More than any trade mission or prime minister’s speech, Dashan charisma and generous spirit has helped promote the Canadian brand, while never losing sight of the nuances and even compromises that attend those working and living in China.
Title image courtesy of Arthur Jau via Wikimedia Commons