Lessons from the most famous Canadian you’ve never heard of

Who’s the most famous Canadian on the planet? Okay, perhaps the all-powerful Celine would win that one by a head, but if there was ever a fair and balanced Jimmy Carter-invigilated vote, you wouldn’t be judged idiotic if you put your money on “Dashan,” aka the most famous foreigner in China.

Now that it’s all Beijing all the time, the Canadian media is starting to talk quite a bit about our friend Dashan – especially since he’s been a cultural attache for the Canadian Olympic Committee for these games. Here’s a CP video playing on the Globe and Mail site.

Just over 20 years ago, Rowswell was a graduate student at Beijing University. The Ottawa native had taken East Asian studies at the University of Toronto. He thought learning Cantonese and Mandarin would be a fun and exotic thing to do, but he never really saw a practical way of making a living from it. When his undergrad ended, Rowswell decided he would go to Beijing for a few years, have some adventures, and get down to starting a career and a family in Canada later.

That “few years” turned into over twenty when, out of the blue, a Chinese TV network approached his teachers at Beijing University, asking for a foreigner with a good grasp of Mandarin to host an international singing competition. Rowswell is humble about it, but he’s damned good at speaking Mandarin because of his natural predilection for languages (though he claims he stunk at high school French) and his conscious decision to detach himself from the international student community and immerse himself in Chinese culture, Rowswell was a hot shot in his classes. The teachers picked him, he went to the studio, recorded the show, and then started getting asked back.

The first show became the second and then the third, until Rowswell was finally asked to perform in a comedy skit on the New Years’ Eve Special, a program watched by over five hundred and fifty million people. His character’s name in that skit was “Dashan” (which means “Big Mountain” as Rowswell’s rather tall) and he’s been Dashan ever since. When he woke up the next morning, he had become an overnight celebrity. Chinese viewers were amazed that a white foreigner could speak Mandarin so well. And not just school book Mandarin, but street vernacular. They thought it was hilarious.

Several years later, when Dashan had opted to stay in China, he decided to learn the Ming Dynasty comedic art of xiangsheng, a ritual of competitive verbal jousting that requires the strict training of a martial art but provides an effect similar to Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First.”

Check out Dashan’s first xiangsheng performance from the late eighties. It’s completely opaque to a western audience, but you kind of get what’s going on.

Though they don’t know it, Dashan is the poster boy for all those neurotic western mothers pressing their kids to take Mandarin lessons.

He is the Sidney Poitier of Chinese popular culture. By carefully choosing his parts, he has shaped Chinese views of foreigners, proving that they can open-mindedly enter and participate in Chinese culture.

I travelled through China for a month in 2005, and everywhere I went, I was bombarded with questions: “You are from Canada. Ah, so you must know Dashan? Don’t you think he is the funniest man ever? Do you worship him as a god in your country?”

My answers were no, no, and no. I had never heard of the man—until I turned on the TV, that is, and saw Dashan hosting everything from instructional language programs to talent shows.

When Dashan gave a speech at a conference Andrew attended later that year, Andrew immediately pounced on him for an interview. His story is proof that we are never wholly constrained by geographic or linguistic borders.

Yes, we know. Westerners in China often hate Dashan because he’s raised the bar too high and made them look bad. But what he has done in China should serve as inspiration for a generation of artists and business people alike.