Who Says You Can't Move Mountains?

Canadian Mark Rowswell, also known as Dashan (Big Mountain), is a cultural icon to a billion Chinese people but he can walk down the streets of Toronto without turning a single head.

What made you decide to leave Ottawa to go to the University of Toronto to learn Chinese?

I went to U of T just to go to Toronto basically. I wanted to get a general arts degree, get out of Ottawa and go to the big city. I didn't really go to study Chinese but it's something that I latched onto in my first year. I had learned a little in my spare time in Ottawa while working a summer job with Chinese people and they started to teach me a few words. I didn't enroll in Chinese until the second week of classes because for the first week, I didn't find it that practical a choice so I picked other courses. After the first week I just decided that I had to take Chinese; the other courses were kind of boring.

The first year I took a couple of courses for fun. I was taking a little bit of everything because I didn't know what I was going to major in. In the second year I decided to major in Chinese. I wasn't really looking for job training at university — it was just a general arts degree and I didn't think it would hurt to learn Chinese. This was the mid-eighties and China was really starting to develop and people were starting to say the next century belongs to China.

After U of T you continued your studies in Beijing?

I applied for a federal government scholarship — the Canada China Scholarly Exchange Program. That was sort of a flagship program for academic exchange between Canada and China in the seventies and the program is still running.

I was 23 when I went over. I had my university degree and I had to start thinking about my career. I thought that since I had been studying Chinese, I should go over to live in China for six months or a year and then figure out what to do. So I went over in 1988 with a sort of cavalier attitude just to see what would happen. Then, sure enough, by a chance encounter with a teacher at the university, I got an opportunity to appear on television to do a variety show in December 1988. That's where the name Dashan comes from.

That's when you got your big break?

There is a Chinese saying that really sums up that whole experience: "Aim crooked and shoot straight". Just close your eyes and shoot wildly and you just happen to hit the bulls eye. That's really what that show was about and the producer thought this would be kind of fun. It was a New Year's Eve special; it's an international holiday, so let's get some international talent. Let's get a couple of foreigners in here to do a skit. That kind of thing is much more common now but in the eighties, there weren't a lot of foreigners appearing on Chinese TV and they were certainly not performing the kind of skit we were. The name Dashan was a bit of a lark but once you've done that first skit in front of an audience of 550 million people, it kind of sticks. After that things started to snowball because all of a sudden, Dashan was a household name and people were expecting the next Dashan show.

What does Dashan mean?

Literally it just means Big Mountain.

But what does it really mean?

You are right in that it's more than that. People in the West think "He is tall so he has a name like Big Mountain". That's not what it is at all. Dashan is written with two of the simplest characters in the Chinese written language. Traditionally it's always been a popular name for illiterate peasants who might only know twenty or thirty characters. It's a common name for rural people to call their son. Big Mountain sounds like a good name, big, strong, powerful and it's easy to write. The reason that the name stuck for me was that when most foreigners study Chinese, one of the very first things they do is pick a Chinese name. The Chinese teacher usually does that for them. Usually, the names they choose are very civilized, poetic and sophisticated. Chinese names have a very direct meaning and foreigners tend to pick these very poetic names. That was part of the comedy for the very first skit that I did. This Brazilian girl and I were performing this really down-to-earth Chinese skit, speaking a lot of slang, and we were called very typical country names. There was a contradiction or contrast there because usually foreigners have a very poetic names and they learn textbook Chinese or classical Chinese. What we were doing was real street language and I had this sort of country-bumpkin name. That was part of the appeal of the first skit. It's one of the reasons the name stuck.

It makes you a man of the people?

That's part of the image I think. It's very much a man of the street, the guy next door who just happens to be from the other side of the world. That to me is really the kernel of the image because the Chinese have such a strong sense of "us and them". They have a very strong sense of identity. Dashan sort of flips that on its head because he doesn't really fit in to traditional concepts. He is obviously not Chinese, but on the other hand, because of what he says and what he does, it's really hard for the Chinese to imagine that he is a foreigner. That's what led to a cliché that I'm often labelled with: I'm more Chinese than the Chinese themselves. They expect foreigners to be foreigners, they expect them to speak in funny accents and they expect them to not understand very much about Chinese culture. Dashan flips that on its head; here is a guy who not only is adept in the Chinese language but familiar with the Chinese culture.

There is this big movement in China; they're internationalizing and to a certain extent, westernizing. There is a concern that they're losing their traditional culture. Young people aren't learning Chinese anymore. Skills like calligraphy are going down the drain, people are learning computers and they're learning English.

Chinese really feel that they're moving onto the world stage and there is this worldly influence on China. Then they see this guy who comes from the other side of the planet, he's learned and he likes Chinese culture. I think this is comforting to them. In this era of globalization everyone wants to be a citizen of the world but they don't want to lose their own unique identities. They want to feel that they are as international as anyone else without becoming Hollywood and McDonald's and all that other stuff.

To help us understand your status in China, who would your equivalent be here?

It's hard to say; the common misconception here in Canada is the whole labelling of Dashan as a comedian and people then compare me to Canadian comedians like Rick Mercer. People are curious; they want to know what makes the Chinese laugh? What is Chinese humour like? I have done a lot of humour and comedy and after a while I realized the whole appeal and success of the Dashan character is not so much a comedic thing as it is a cultural phenomenon. This is one of the reasons that performances don't travel outside of China because it's really is something that's custom-made for a Chinese perspective. You need all that Chinese cultural baggage to really get it. Basically, none of my humour translates because the whole set-up assumes that the audience is Chinese.

So if you don't have all those cultural references then you just won't get it?

It's not necessarily just the cultural references, it's the whole cultural identity of the audience. For example, I find one of the big differences between Canadians and Chinese is that the Chinese have little or no identity crisis. Canada is a young country and we're still creating our identity and we're still discovering what it means to be a Canadian.

Canadians tend to define themselves by who they're not as opposed to who they are.

The Chinese have no problem determining who they are as a people, where they come from, what makes them Chinese, their history, their culture. Those are things that for most Chinese are completely clear. That's why I say that they have a very clear concept of who is considered us and who is considered them. In Canada, that line is sort of blurred. How long do you have to be in Canada before you're a Canadian? Is it one or two generations, or just a couple of years?

What is xiangsheng?

Xian sheng is basically a form of comedy that plays a lot on language and so a lot of the things I do are puns and plays on words. In my case, it's not really the content of the skit but the fact that it's being done by a foreigner. In part that's what I mean when I say the cultural baggage that the audience brings to it. They have to bring that whole identity that we are Chinese and that person up there is a foreigner. But he sounds awfully Chinese and he's doing something I've never seen a foreigner do before. The audience comes to see me, and they have this really strong sense of us and them, and then this guy sort of breaks through it. That's why they say "Dashan, he's not really a foreigner, he just looks like one".

Do you consider yourself more Chinese or Canadian?

People sort of treat me as being unique but it struck me a few years ago, thinking about this, and the only unique aspect is that I'm a Westerner doing this elsewhere. If you look at the Chinese in Canada, are they Chinese or Canadian? That's the kind of question you can never answer because they are both. It's not either one or the other. My wife is Chinese so we're a mixed race family but culturally we are just like a lot of Chinese-Canadians living in Canada. We have a cultural background but live our daily lives in a combination of cultures. They live with a little bit of Chinese and Western culture all mixed together. I am a Westerner who has become more Chinese. Around the world, there are millions of Chinese who have become more westernized. It's really just the other side of the coin.

Do Canadians tend to overstate our good reputation in China?

We are a little bit smug about it I suppose and we tend to rest on our laurels a bit. We have a great reputation because of Norman Bethune. I've heard from different sectors that Canadians have a reputation among foreigners as being some of the better Chinese speakers, perhaps people like myself have had an impact on that reputation. Obviously, Bethune still has the largest influence on Canada's reputation in China. At the same time, I think the Chinese know very little about Canada. They know that we're a big country with very few people, that it's cold, and that we produce wheat and pulp. They also know Niagara Falls but beyond that, the knowledge of Canada is pretty basic.

How do you think the Chinese perceive this sort of "gold rush" approach from the West to get in on the Chinese economic boom?

They are very much focused on conquering the world market I suppose. I think there is a perception that the whole world wants to be in China and everyone wants to sell things and invest in China. They're very much aware of that and I think they're very proud that China is the main focus of the world in terms of economic development right now. Obviously, North America and Europe and Japan are more advanced and wealthier than China. I think they perceive that the economic growth of the world is happening in China. We used to talk about China and Russia; now we talk about China and India and I think in China they're not impressed at all about being compared to India or Russia. The Chinese perception is that they are vastly superior to those two places so why would we compare them to Russia or India?

Are there some kind of Canadian "traits" that advantage us in China?

I think Canadians worldwide have an advantage because we're more acclimatized to cultural sensitivity because we deal with so many cultures in Canada. Part of it is being able to adapt to having things done a little differently than you're used to. I think Canadians are accustomed to that. Compare that to a lot of Chinese immigrants who have always eaten the same food since they were kids, and the people around them were not just Chinese but, for example, if you grew up in Tianjin, people around you have always been from Tianjin and people from Tianjin always eat the same kind of food. There is a real sort of local culture, and even if you go from Tianjin to Shanghai, they experience a real culture shock. People in Shanghai eat different food and they're quite different from the people in Tianjin. I find the Chinese tend to have less of a cultural flexibility that way. A Northerner will go to Shanghai and after a day or two, he's complaining about the food and how he can't get used to it, and the climate is so terrible and just "how can people live here?" . So you can imagine going from Tianjin to Canada is even more of a shock. Generally, Canadians tend to be a lot more flexible; if we are going to have Lebanese food, you know, why not? Let's try Lebanese food and then tomorrow we'll have Thai food.

Chinese people often ask me what the difference is between Canadians and Americans and I tell them nobody can really figure it out but us Canadians. As we mentioned earlier, we identify ourselves very much by what we're not. One of the central parts of the Canadian identity is the whole ideal that we're not American. But for anyone else, it's kind of hard to tell us apart. I say to them one of the main differences is that Canadians never assume we're number one. We don't think of ourselves as a great power. We are quite proud of the quality of life we have, and maybe we're ranked very highly by the UN, but we don't really think of ourselves as a great nation. You look at the Olympic Games and if we're in the top ten usually we're pretty happy.

Canada highly values and promotes human rights. Does this cause problems in China?

That's our perception but I don't think that's the perception in China where human rights is one of those terms that carries a lot of baggage. I think the Chinese are well aware that there is a problem in their system, they are aware that they don't have a full range of human rights and that human rights aren't actively protected across Chinese society. I don't know if they really perceive all this foreign pressure on human rights to be that practical or beneficial. I think they see it more as an excuse to put pressure on China. It's not actually trying to improve things in China, but somehow just used as a lever by the other countries to advance their own interests in China. This is a touchy subject and as soon as you mention human rights in China, the assumption is that foreign governments are just putting pressure on China. At the same time, they're aware that their situation is not perfect and they're working on it. As Westerners, we tend to assume because they have a controlled media and a totalitarian state that they're not aware of these issues and I think that's inaccurate; I think they're quite aware.

Another sensitive issue might be trademark and copyright violations in China. Do you think there might be cultural underpinnings to these practices, perhaps based on individual ownership vs. collectivity?

I think you could probably dig deeper into that. My impression is that Asian cultures don't tend to value innovation as much as Western cultures. We are always trying to do something different whereas in China, they are always trying to do something better — not necessarily different. Look at a country like Japan, which is a huge technological powerhouse in the world, but with very few inventions of their own. They tend to take things that Americans have invented and then make them much better than the Americans. They aren't really big on innovation, just improving. I guess that's kind of a Pan Asian thing, if you look at it at that level. In Western business you see a total run-around of the competition just to do something they haven't yet thought done. In China, there is more of a pact mentality, which may be a negative spin on it, but I think there may be deeper-rooted cultural reasons for this.

Beyond you commercial success and your professional success, what kind of legacy would you like to leave? Do you see yourself as being a cultural bridge-builder?

I may be a little bit vague in what I would like to achieve over the span of my career but I have been giving some thought to it and I I've always been working hard to break out of a mold. Even now I try to stay out of the mold of "this is a white guy speaking Chinese" and that's about all there is to him. So lump all the white guys who speak Chinese together and it's all the same sort of thing. First of all, the Dashan image breaks out of the mold that you're either Chinese or a foreigner; there is no middle ground, you're one or the other. Dashan is both and I think a lot of Chinese in the world are both now, that there is not that clear distinction between cultures anymore, there are all kinds of grey areas between cultures.

So no Dashan action movie?

Well anything is possible. You know I do a lot of different stuff, anything that is sort of East-meets-West I'm interested in giving a shot. I've made my name first doing the comedy performances, which again, was something that foreigners hadn't done before so that was something new and different for the Chinese audience. From there I went on to just straight TV hosting, instead of being the local foreign student appearing as a guest on the show, actually working as a freelance emcee. There are no more than three or four foreigners who do that as a profession in China. Then the language programs, teaching English at first and then branching off to teaching Chinese. Two years ago I got a chance to do some drama,I got the lead role in a TV drama about an Italian Jesuit in China ( Giuseppe Castiglione) and the next thing I'm going to be doing is I am playing Edgar Snow, who was an american journalist in China in the thirties. We're doing a play in Shanghai based on his life and his book, Red Star Over China. So there is no reason why I wouldn't do an action movie, I better do it before I get to fat and old though.