Meet Dashan, the China-based Canadian master of Mandarin so many expats love to hate

I plan to move to Asia at the end of the year, so I give a lot of thought to how Western expatriates, especially media-oriented ones, live in Asian countries.

Any discussion of that subject for me inevitably turns to a certain Mark Rowswell (AKA Dashan), the most famous China-based foreigner of them all.

Rowswell went to China in 1988 to continue the Chinese-language studies he'd begun four years earlier as a college student at the University of Toronto. When he appeared CCTV New Year's Gala, a broadcast watched by 550 million — not a typo, 550 million — people, he became enormously popular. Since that day, he has represented not just the image of the Westerner in China, but of the impossibly fluent, "more-Chinese-than-Chinese" Westerner in China.


You can learn more about Rowswell/Dashan's story from Dashan, Ambassador to China's Funny Bone, the documentary at the top. He grew so famous in large part out of the facility he developed with "crosstalk" (or "xiangsheng," or "相声"), a traditional form of Chinese comedy with few prominent Western practitioners. But according to an Atlantic article from last year, the mild-mannered Canadian has more recently turned toward straight-ahead stand-up. One such routine of his, with material about his first efforts to learn Mandarin and Cantonese, appears just above.

The prominence of Rowswell's inoffensive, all-smiles Dashan character bothers some Western expatriates in China, especially those who endure constant comparisons to him from well-meaning locals. Rowswell himself responded thoughtfully and at length in a Quora thread entitled "Why Do So Many Chinese Learners Seem to Hate Dashan?" He appears in this much more relatable persona in the English-language Kung Fu Komedy interview above, in which he even swears — though he politely asks soon afterward, "Are we allowed to use the F word?"

Gotta represent the homeland, I guess.