To China, a Canadian Is the West

Times Staff Writer

The big, blue-eyed Canadian strides confidently into a concrete-floored classroom filled with disadvantaged students on the outskirts of this capital.

“Dashan! Dashan!” the second-graders shout in unison. Beaming, Mark Rowswell greets the children in a fast-clipped, colloquial Mandarin that even their teacher might have a hard time matching.

The students sit spellbound, listening to the near-flawless command of Chinese demonstrated by this 6-foot-tall cultural oddity, this outsider.


That’s all it takes. Within moments, the unlikely homegrown celebrity known as Dashan, or Big Mountain, has won over yet another mainland audience.

Part curiosity, part domestic media star, Rowswell is China’s most famous foreigner, enjoying a near-constant presence on Chinese television.

He appears regularly on nationally broadcast variety shows and is the host of his own programs. Officials of state-run TV and others estimate that Dashan is known to 80% of the population -- more than 1 billion people -- ranking him as one of the most recognized personalities on the planet.

Across this vast country, images of Dashan are everywhere. His smiling face flashes from billboards and buses from Tibet to Tiananmen Square, advertising alcohol and air conditioners, fertilizer and Western suits.

In the years since China fell for Rowswell in 1988, he has evolved from a mere lao wai, or foreign visitor, to a beloved public figure and cross-cultural ambassador, a celebrity with near-cult status.

The lanky Ottawa native, a virtual unknown in Canada, is most renowned for his Chinese TV appearances as the quick-witted foreigner who does amusing skits and the first Westerner to perform the ancient Chinese art of xiangsheng, or comedic dialogue.


The grandson of a former Anglican missionary in China, Rowswell, 39, is prospering in a society where TV performers work for minimal pay, earning his keep through lucrative advertising endorsements.

The Dashan character provides Rowswell with more than just a $500,000 annual income. Commuting several times each year between China and his home in Canada, he carries the personal satisfaction that his efforts may chip away at the Great Wall of cultural misunderstanding between China and the West.

“I try to bring to the Chinese a new image of foreigners that flies in the face of the stereotypes most have grown up with,” he said.

Part of that public relations effort is to direct his star status toward social activism. Big Mountain appears in campaigns against smoking and suicide, and he has urged Chinese citizens to reduce global warming through energy conservation. The campaign included his recent visit to the elementary school on Beijing’s outskirts to promote a government pilot program to bring regular education to the children of itinerant laborers.

Dashan’s West-meets-East pitch is a natural sell all over China. In a place far from Hollywood, Rowswell is treated with a reverence reserved for the motion picture elite. Almost everywhere he goes, he is recognized by passersby -- from cabbies and street vendors to government cadres who slow their limousines for a peek at Big Mountain.

He is mobbed in Beijing department stores. Passing bicyclists wave shyly. Some muster the courage to ask for an autograph or snap a picture.


Dashan is flooded with e-mail from admirers who want to become pen pals or insist that they know someone who resembles him. Mothers come bearing pictures of their daughters. Government officials call him on his cellphone to request guest appearances, and former President Jiang Zemin once commented on Rowswell’s performances.

A former Canadian ambassador to China once was approached in Tibet by a waitress who gushed, “Canada, that’s where Dashan lives!”

“Mark has done what few Westerners can: make the Chinese people laugh at themselves using their own language,” said Ian Burchett, a spokesman for the Canadian Embassy in Beijing. “His appeal is phenomenal. It doesn’t matter what their station in life, from peasant to city-dweller, everybody wants a piece of Dashan.”

Big Mountain scaled the heights of Chinese celebrity almost by accident.

After numerous Chinese courses in Canada, Rowswell moved to China to pursue his language studies. Rowswell’s teachers at Peking University volunteered the gifted foreign student to audition for a 1988 TV variety show. During the second performance of a skit before a university audience, he played a country bumpkin named Dashan.

The next day, a student greeted him by the stage name. Rowswell assumed the man had attended the performance. Then an elderly lady did the same thing. That’s when Rowswell learned that the skit had been broadcast on government TV to 550 million viewers -- an audience 15 times the population of his native Canada.

The opportunities multiplied. Rowswell winces now at some of those early gigs, such as the commercial pitching a tofu-based drink called dou zhir, known for its peculiar odor.


“It’s basically fermented bean scum from the residue in the vat from making bean curd,” he said. “And here was this foreigner saying he actually likes the stuff.”

Rowswell got his big break after he hooked up with Jiang Kun, a celebrity master of xiangsheng, a centuries-old Chinese performance art. Rowswell became Jiang’s apprentice, the first foreigner to train in the art form of “crosstalk.”

Unlike Western comedians, Chinese performers don’t tell a series of one-liners but prefer storytelling. Rowswell likens crosstalk to a Mandarin version of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine, based on rapid exchanges of puns and double-entendres.

“It’s not quite on par with calligraphy or poetry, but crosstalk is a linguistic folk art, and I fell for it,” he said.

The new xiangsheng team of Rowswell and Jiang debuted in 1988 on national television’s New Year’s Eve extravaganza, seen by 900 million people. Critics denounced Jiang for taking on a foreigner as a student, but they eventually came around.

“I was totally touched by his sincerity,” said Jiang, who wrote a book called “My Foreign Apprentice Dashan.” “He understands xiangsheng. He’s not just a clown. He’s doing real art.”


Dashan’s appeal seems to reach far beyond his mastery of an ancient language known for its falling and rising tones and seemingly indecipherable script.

For centuries, Chinese assumed that their closed culture was impenetrable to foreigners. Then came Dashan. Many joke that he is more Chinese than the Chinese themselves.

Close your eyes, natives say, and you’d think you were listening to a next-door neighbor who leans out his window to tell you a joke or ask about your mother-in-law -- all in Beijing slang.

And the Communist Party newspaper, the People’s Daily, concluded in an article: “Although Dashan is a foreigner in China, he’s not an outsider.”

Saluting his gift for straddling two cultures, Time magazine in Canada once placed Rowswell on its list of people most likely to change the planet. Rowswell has consulted with Western businesses on the complexities of Chinese society and has hosted a national radio program introducing Western music to the Chinese.

“Dashan likes Chinese culture and seems to prefer it -- he is even married to a Chinese wife,” said Guan Shijie, an associate professor of cross-cultural communications at Peking University. “He came to China at a time when we needed a cultural bridge.”


Tall, with blond hair and a high forehead, Dashan epitomizes for many Chinese what an attractive Westerner is supposed to look like.

“He’s just got a face that Chinese people instantly feel comfortable with,” Guan said.

Rowswell believes that the connection goes beyond language. It’s his image as a Canadian, a refreshing blend of honesty, integrity and a down-to-Earth, nice-guy friendliness -- qualities the Chinese revere.

“If all it took was being a tall, blond-haired guy who spoke decent Mandarin, there’d be 100 Dashans by now,” he said. “Part of my appeal is that I’m a little nerdy, a bit too rounded at the edges. I’m Canadian. And to the Chinese, that means unthreatening.”

Yet not everyone sees Big Mountain as benign. His mastery of Mandarin is the bane of other Westerners trying to decipher a difficult foreign tongue. Dashan often plays the scapegoat for their frustrations.

“His is probably the best Chinese ever spoken by a foreigner,” said John Pasden, who writes a Shanghai-based Web log. “But it’s aggravating to anyone seriously studying Chinese. You’ll meet somebody and they’ll say in a patronizing tone of voice, ‘Oh, you speak Chinese. Ha! Ha! But have you heard Dashan?’

“It’s like you’re a high school sophomore who’s decided to take up weight training and people say, ‘Oh really? Arnold Schwarzenegger lifts weights too, you know.’ ”


Critics have labeled Dashan a sellout for his perceived close ties to the Chinese government.

Rowswell scoffs at such assertions, saying the government has never suggested he take political stances on issues such as the status of Taiwan or Tibet or on East-West relations. And he wouldn’t do it, even if asked.

“China is full of democratic missionaries pressing their cause,” he said. “Would we Westerners want the Chinese telling us how to solve our social and political problems? While I’m part of Chinese society, I’m not Chinese. I’m only a guest here, a visitor.”

Even as he rides a steady wave of popularity, Rowswell works to keep his Big Mountain character fresh.

Dashan has evolved from a bumpkin to a foreigner who slowly becomes more Chinese and often uses his wit to turn the tables on his hosts.

He plays an Italian Renaissance artist in China in a new TV series. He has written children’s stories and will host a Saturday night show in which he introduces Western movies such as “The Mask” and “Batman.” Rowswell is also taking Dashan on the road to Chinese audiences in Malaysia and elsewhere.


And he has expanded his activist role. Amid a crush of TV cameras during his visit to the elementary school, he played pingpong, posed for pictures and read a nursery rhyme to students in both Chinese and English. He greeted each child and asked them to teach him a phrase in their own dialects.

Later, he did somersaults in the schoolyard in front of scores of students.

“Can we give Uncle Dashan a grade?” they shouted. “We give him 100!”

Rowswell hopes such visits blur the distinctions between East and West.

“All this mystery about China has been blown out of proportion,” he said. “The human experience has become pretty universal. I think people should come and spend some time in China before making any judgments about the place.”

Rowswell lives in Toronto with his wife and two children and travels to China for extended visits half a dozen times each year, when he tapes his TV shows and makes his appearances.

But the world is closing in on him.

Recently, a Chinese fan took a picture of him at a mall in Toronto, where he once was able to bask in anonymity.

“Not long ago, this Chinese guy e-mailed me his picture, insisting that we were look-alikes,” Rowswell said. “I looked at the photo. I didn’t see the similarity.”