BRIDGING EAST-WEST WITH LAUGHTER
Mark Rowswell, better known as Dashan, is perhaps the most famous Canadian cultural ambassador to China. Without a doubt, he’s the funniest one.
At his sold-out show Dashan Live at the University of Toronto on March 20, Rowswell received an enthusiastic welcome from the 500 Chinese in the audience, all of whom grew up watching him on TV doing his xiangsheng routines, or “cross talk”, a traditional Chinese comedic dialogue.
This time, however, Rowswell did something different — he performed a solo stand-up comedy show, a format unfamiliar to most Chinese audiences.
“For many years, I wanted to do something different,” Rowswell said. “I’ve always known there was more potential beyond tongue-twisters, xiangsheng, and hosting events.”
There have been three stages in his Dashan career, he said: Dashan 1.0 -- Dashan the foreign exchange student; then Dashan 2.0 -- Dashan the cultural ambassador; and currently, Dashan 3.0 -- Dashan the stand-up comic.
“It’s coming full circle: my comedy is, in fact, a form of cultural comedy,” he said.
Born and raised in Ottawa, Rowswell began to study Chinese at the University of Toronto in 1984, then left for further studies at Beijing University on a full scholarship when he was 23.
When Rowswell first picked up the Chinese language, he didn’t expect a career from it at all. He just wanted to learn the language of the common folk.
“I wanted to study something outside of my own circle,” Rowswell said. “French wasn’t exotic enough, because we learned French all the way through high school.”
December 1988 was a turning point in his life. Within three months of arriving at Beijing, he performed a skit during the annual Chinese New Year Gala hosted by China Central Television, where the segment was broadcast to nearly 550 million people across the nation. The name, Dashan, which translates to “big mountain”, became famous overnight.
“At the time, a lot of people told me it wouldn’t last, that it was only a flash in the pan,” he said. “And I thought, ‘There has to be something more for me to do than tongue-twisters.’”
It wasn’t until seven years later in 1995 that he decided to pursue and develop Dashan into a full-time career. He became interested in xiang sheng and started to learn from his mentor, popular comedian Jiang Kun.
Most of Rowswell’s content centers on what the Chinese call “the fundamental truths”, particularly of life philosophy and social struggles, told in an abrupt but genuine manner. These subjects have gained popularity among audiences since they are feelings and observations shared and, more often than not, concealed by many.
“A lot of the jokes I do on stage, they come from real-life experiences that no one talks about,” he said. “And when you tell it like it is, it’s funny, because nobody does that.”
Through his act, Rowswell quickly became one of the most famous foreigners in China, and the most famous Canadian in China.
But he has always wanted to do more than just be a comic.
“I’ve always wanted to become a cultural ambassador,” he said. “Everybody loves comedians, but no one really respects them, because you’re just being funny.”
Early on, Rowswell worked at the Cultural Affairs Department of the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, where he promoted Canadian studies programs in different Chinese universities by setting up Canadian studies centres, as well as hosting cultural events and festivals.
His most memorable stints included serving as Commissioner General for Canada at the Shanghai 2010 World Expo and official team attaché to the Canadian Olympic Committee for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
“I was a true cultural official, representing the government of Canada and the Department of Canadian Heritage,” he said. “It was a great experience and such an honour.”
Rowswell was named Canada’s Goodwill Ambassador to China in 2012, and inducted into the Order of Canada, Canada’s highest civilian honour.
In 2009, Rowswell received a Doctor of Laws honorary degree from Thompson Rivers University for his “efforts to build global connections between cultures and economies”. TIME magazine named him as one of the Leaders for the 21st Century in 1999.
He has also hosted multiple former Canadian prime minsters at diplomatic events in China over the years, including Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper.
“If your ambition is to be a cultural ambassador and you’ve already been Commissioner General at the biggest Expo ever in Shanghai, where do you go next?” Rowswell said. “I didn’t have a core project. I could become the Canadian ambassador to China, but that wouldn’t be a cultural career, it would be a political career.”
He also slowly drifted away from xiangsheng. As much as he has mastered the Chinese language like a native, Rowswell says he will always be considered as “unauthentic” by the Chinese, and therefore can only portray “the student”, especially when performing such a traditional art form.
After being away from comedy for 15 years as a cultural ambassador, he actually started to develop stage fright.
“Comedy is like a muscle, you have to keep working at it every day,” he said. “Gradually, it became a huge mental burden because people always expect you to be funny wherever you go.”
He spent five years figuring out what to do next, exploring a way to combine elements of comedy, live performance and being a cultural ambassador.
“I still want to do people-to-people stuff. I love working on stage because of the rush, and the sense of connection with the audience,” Rowswell said.
That’s when he came up with an East-meets-West solution: Western style stand-up comedy in China.
“I’ve always thought stand-up comedy was for expats, or for cosmopolitan Chinese who speak English,” he said. “There’s an audience for it in China, but a tiny niche, not for the mainstream.”
He began to explore the local standup scene, and realized the art form hadn’t been established in China at all. The earliest stand-up comedy show he could track down was in 2009, performed by Zhou Libo.
“Chinese comedy tends to be dialogue; while Western comedy tends to be one-man — and that’s the kind of comedy I’m most familiar with. I grew up listening to it,” said Rowswell.
Drawing from his understanding of stand-up comedy, his stage skills and 25 years of experience from living between Eastern and Western cultures, Rowswell began performing the solo show Dashan Live in 2013 at smaller venues like clubs and universities, to test the waters and polish the show.
The feedback so far has been positive. Even though many warned him stand-up shows like his are unlikely to be aired on CCTV, Rowswell thinks it’s still worthwhile. He is confident stand-up comedy will eventually gain popularity among Chinese audiences.
Even after mastering the Chinese language for so many years, performing in front of an all-Chinese audience still holds its challenges. To this day, Rowswell believes there is a cultural barrier to break down, and a new image to rebuilt. In fact, Rowswell believes Eastern and Western cultures aren’t extremes in the continuum.
“No one is defined by a single culture,” he said. “Everyone embodies a hybrid of culture; we shouldn’t talk about cultures like they are black and white.”
“Of all the things I’ve ever done, there is nothing more difficult than being funny,” he said. “It’s a high risk, high stress environment. And if you can do it well, it’s an intoxicating feeling.”
Mark Rowswell, AKA Dashan, performs his new stand up comedy show, Dashan Live, at the University of Toronto on March 20. The show was sold out.
Mark “Dashan” Roswell, comedian