WHEN Mark Rowswell came to China in 1988 as an exchange student to learn Chinese at Peking University, it was a one-year plan.
Twenty-six years later, the Canadian is somewhat of a cultural ambassador, bridging Chinese and Western sides in a role that often sees him caught in the middle and even criticized.
Rowswell gained fame three months after his arrival when he appeared on the Spring Festival Gala on CCTV, a show which drew 550 million viewers.
He later became known as Dashan (big mountain) and one of the most recognized foreigners in China famous for his impeccable pronunciation of Mandarin and xiangsheng, or crosstalk, a form of comedy considered very difficult even for locals. His Mandarin is so good that many Chinese say they would never know Rowswell is a foreigner just by listening to him speak.
He served as Commissioner General for Canada during the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai. In 2012, Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper named Rowswell Canada’s Cultural Ambassador to China for using “his extraordinary talents to build bridges of understanding between Canada and China.”
These days the 49-year-old doesn’t have a fixed job, but he remains a celebrity for hire. He hosts events for consulates and big galas, performing talk shows and even acting in stage plays. He has also dabbled in education, teaching both English and Chinese, and appeared in commercials endorsing a cell phone brand. He has lent his name to anti-smoking campaigns and suicide prevention.
He splits his time half in China and half in Canada.
“In my career, what I try to focus more is cross-culture communication,” Rowswell said while in Shanghai recently to appear as a judge on “Host-Off,” a new reality show to select bilingual television hosts. “Host-Off” will air in mid-October on ICS.
He admits he feels frustrated at times in his role as a cultural ambassador. “I have been doing this for so long now and I find often the dialogue between cultures is really repetitive,” the Canadian says.
He gives an example about Peking Opera and Chinese martial arts and says the true meaning of both are left unexplored when introduced to foreigners. He believes much of the discussion stays at the surface level and is “very shallow.”
Wearing a black T-shirt, jeans and black-rimmed glasses, Rowswell looks a bit tired due to his busy schedule filming “Host-Off.” His hair is slightly disheveled and he is a bit unshaven. Still the tall, well-mannered Canadian standing in the middle of the hotel lobby draws many glances from people passing by.
His career has often been a balancing act, straddling both Western and Chinese cultures and discussions that separate the sides into two camps is something he tries to avoid.
“It’s like there are two circles together and there is huge space overlapping in the middle,” he says. “Then on both sides, there are some things uniquely Chinese or uniquely Western, but a lot of it now is just a mishmash in the middle. We just talk about it like its two extremes.”
Another thing Rowswell dislikes is being asked to speak on behalf of Westerners as if there is only one foreign viewpoint.
“Sure, I’m a Westerner, but not everything I think is because I am a Westerner,” he says.
There is no doubting Rowswell’s Mandarin ability, but there are numerous other foreigners who speak the language fluently. What sets him apart is his understanding of Chinese culture and his diplomacy in dealing with Chinese sensibilities.
This has led to criticism by some expatriates in China, who see Rowswell as disingenuous and obsequious.
“These are complicated issues,” he says, sitting up straight. “I always get stuck on this. It’s a polarized discussion where you are not allowed to be in the middle. Either you are on the Twitter side or you are on the Weibo side. But for me I am on Twitter and Weibo.”
While hundreds of millions of Chinese know him as Dashan, Rowswell is virtually unknown in his native Canada and other Western countries.
As for his original one-year plan to study Chinese in Beijing, he says things changed quickly after his CCTV appearance.
“Once it happened, even if it is by accident, you become famous. Then all of a sudden, all kinds of opportunities came. So I decided to stay at least one more year,” he recalls.
It was also during his TV show debut that Rowswell was introduced to top comedian, Jiang Kun, who taught him crosstalk, an ancient form of comic dialogue relying heavily on puns, double meanings and word games. He later accepted Rowswell as his apprentice, a decision that generated controversy.
This was the first time a foreigner had ever been accepted into the xiangsheng hierarchy.
“Crosstalk is the art of language. It is also a folk art, very down-to-earth,” says Rowswell. “So it’s a good way to learn the language, Chinese culture and society as well since it is very close to people’s everyday life.”
He was invited back on CCTV’s New Year’s Eve Gala Show in 1989, appearing in a 3-man crosstalk skit with Jiang and Tang Jiezhong. It marked the first time such a large audience had seen a foreigner perform xiangsheng.
“A foreigner speaking not only Mandarin, but also the vernacular or street language and tongue twisters was unusual. And I saw the opportunities,” Rowswell says.
Soon he was hearing comments like, “he is more Chinese than a Chinese,” and his career started to take off. Dashan was novel yet familiar all rolled into one act.
As for working in the entertainment business for a state-owned broadcaster, Rowswell is often asked about censorship and if he avoids certain subjects to avoid offending Chinese viewers.
The Canadian says he just accepts the system as it works.
“If you are a performer in China, either you work with it or you totally avoid it,” he says. “So I just decided to work with it.”