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China’s “Most Famous Foreigner” Mark Rowswell: Ready for Dashan 3.0

He has been China’s most famous foreigner for nearly three decades: Canadian Mark Rowswell aka Dashan. On March 30, he talked about his life as a household name and his work as a comedian in the PRC at Beijing’s the Bookworm. What’s on Weibo was there to take note.

Manya Koetse

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He is China’s “most famous foreigner” since the late 1980s: Canadian Mark Rowswell, better known as Dashan. On March 30, he talked about his life as a Chinese household name and his work as a comedian at Beijing’s The Bookworm. After a fruitful China career of nearly three decades, Rowswell says he’s now ready for ‘Dashan 3.0.’ What’s on Weibo reports.

Canadian Mark Rowswell aka Dashan (大山) has been working as a comedian and media personality in China since the late 1980s. His excellent Chinese made him instantly famous when he starred in the most-watched televised show in the world, the CCTV Spring Gala. Since then he has appeared on countless Chinese TV shows and dramas, and has appeared on the Spring Gala a total of four times.

On Sina Weibo, Dashan (@大山) now has over 3.8 million fans. He might not be the most popular non-Chinese person on Weibo (Stephen Hawking gained 4.2 million followers since he joined Weibo), but he certainly is the most famous Canadian in China ever since Norman Bethune.

One of the reasons for Rowswell to talk about his work during a special talk at Beijing’s the Bookworm on March 30 (moderated by Asia correspondent Nathan VanderKlippe), is his upcoming show in Australia at the Melbourne Comedy Fest, where he will be performing in Chinese. It’s now all about the physical audiences for Rowswell, who says he’s disappointed with Weibo and the virtual world, and wants to do comedy offline – up close and personal.

 

THE BIRTH OF DASHAN

“I thought it was just an audience of 500 people; nobody told me there were 550 million people watching the show on TV.”

 

As Dashan’s career in China will soon hit the 30-year mark, the Ottowa-born performer is perpetually known as “the foreigner who speaks fluent Chinese.”

Perhaps surprising for someone who masters Mandarin so well, Rowswell did not speak a word of Chinese until the age of 19. He chose to study the language out of curiosity after the phrase “the next century belongs to China” started to make its rounds in Canada. From 1984 to 1988, he studied Chinese at the University of Toronto and then headed to China.

Mark Rowswell aka Dashan talks at The Bookworm, March 30.

“We all knew that China was going to be a big part of the world, that many Chinese would come to Canada – but how many Canadians were going to China?”, Rowswell tells his audience at the Bookworm. He set out to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to “ride the wave”, although he was not sure about his exact plans yet.

Within 3 months after starting his studies at Beijing University, Rowswell was asked to participate in a TV show and ‘Dashan’ was born. His Chinese name (that literally means ‘big mountain’) is a peasant one, which in itself already was a joke.

But the name Dashan grew bigger than Rowswell could have ever imagined when he later appeared at the national CCTV gala. “I had no background in performing, and I thought it was just an audience of 500 people; nobody told me there were 550 million people watching the show on television. The little skit that we did somehow hit a sweet spot somewhere, and it ended up being the most popular act of that particular show,” Dashan recalls.

Dashan performing at the 1998 Spring Festival Gala, the best-watched televised event in the world (appears at 3.00 minute mark).

Rowswell’s career soon set off and ‘Dashan’ became a national hype. For a long time, Rowswell did not see his work at the time as a goal in itself: “I thought of it as a stepping stone to get into Chinese society, and to get away from campus and my study books. I traveled with a Chinese performing group and experienced things other foreign students in China would never experience – I even went to places foreigners were not allowed to go.”

Although Rowswell at the time still aspired to work at the Canadian embassy or somewhere else, his work as a freelance performer eventually turned out to be decisive for his eclectic career path, that has brought him to where he is today at the age of 52.

 

DISAPPOINTED IN SOCIAL MEDIA

“I have trouble reading Weibo because I just don’t find anything interesting on it. It’s very hard to keep engaged on a platform that you don’t find interesting.”

 

Looking back on the past thirty years, Rowswell says he can roughly divide his story into three parts. “Dashan 1.0” is the foreign student who appeared on TV as a comedian and TV host. That first stage led him to the “2.0” stage, where his role as a freelance performer also grew into one of being more of a cultural ambassador.

Rowswell received official recognition for this cultural role when he was part of Canada’s Team Attaché during the 2008 Olympics, and later became the Commissioner General for Canada at Expo 2010 in Shanghai. After this period, he searched for a new goal and hoped to find it online.

“After 2010 I thought the answer was Weibo,” Rowswell says: “I really got into Weibo around 2010, 2011, 2012. But post-2012 or so, Weibo is really…I mean, I still maintain it, but I really have trouble reading Weibo now because I just don’t find anything interesting on it. It’s very hard to keep engaged on a platform that you don’t find interesting.”

Rowswell expresses his disappointment when he says he feels that “the promise of social media has not played out.” Although he says he thought that internet was the channel to lead the next stage of his career, “it did not work out that way.”

It is not just Sina Weibo that has not brought Dashan what he had hoped for: “I just think social media in general.. (..) We used to think technology was going to make it easier to communicate and that social media was going to bring people together but that has not worked; social media has unleashed the basic human tribalism and reinforced it.”

As Rowswell felt that the future of his career would not take place online in front of a virtual audience, he decided to focus on physical audiences and returned to the offline stage.

 

THE THIRD ACT

“Stand-up comedy is something that is closely tied to the rise of counter-culture and individualism in China.”

 

From foreign comedian to cultural ambassador, Rowswell reveals that he has always felt he was not truly doing his own things as a freelancer. “I was always doing stuff for someone else, doing someone else’s show. But where is my show?!,” he laughingly says.

It is stand-up comedy in which Dashan has found the next stage of his career, which he calls “Dashan 3.0” or “the third act.” Rowswell stresses that he does not want to be the foreigner in China performing solely for foreign audiences in expat bars. He specifically wants to connect with Chinese audiences; Chinese-language comedy is giving Dashan the stage and the possibility to directly speak to them.

As stand-up comedy (站立喜剧) is finding more channels and bigger audiences in China, Rowswell feels this is the right niche to explore: “It allows me to build on something new. It is not mainstream comedy here, but is something that is closely tied to the rise of counter-culture and individualism in China.”

Rowswell also finds that his eclectic career and experiences now give him the opportunity to take on some kind of mentoring role as a performer. The upcoming Chinese “Dashan Live” show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival – where he will be the only “non-Chinese Chinese performer” – is an important part of this new journey.

“It takes time to find your own voice,” Rowswell remarks. As Dashan 3.0, he now has the opportunity to finally share his own experiences and his own stories, in his own Dashan show.

“Dashan Live” will take place from April 12-16 at The Forum, Melbourne.

– By Manya Koetse

©2017 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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Female Comedian Yang Li and the Intel Controversy

A decision that backfired: Intel’s act of supposed ‘inclusion’ caused the exclusion of female comedian Yang Li.

Manya Koetse

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“How to look at the boycott of Yang Li?” (#如何看待抵制杨笠#) became a top trending topic on social media site Weibo on Monday after female comedian Yang Li was dismissed as the spokesperson for American tech company Intel over a controversial ad campaign.

On March 18, Intel released an ad on its Weibo account in which Yang says “Intel has a taste [for laptops] that is higher than my taste for men” (“英特尔的眼光太高了,比我挑对象的眼光都高.”)

The ad drew complaints for allegedly insulting men, with some social media users vowing to boycott the tech brand. On Sunday, Intel deleted the ad in question from its social media page and reportedly also removed Yang from her position as their brand ambassador.

The commotion over the ad had more to do with Chinese comedian Yang Li (杨笠) than with the specific lines that were featured in it.

Yang Li is controversial for her jokes mocking men (“men are adorable, but mysterious. After all, they can look so average and yet be so full of confidence“), with some blaming her for being “sexist” and “promoting hatred against all men.”

Since she appeared on the stand-up comedy TV competition Rock and Roast (脱口秀大会) last year, she was nicknamed the the “punchline queen” and became one of the more influential comedians in present-day China. Yang now has nearly 1,5 million fans on Weibo (@-杨笠-).

Yang Li’s bold jokes and sharp way of talking about gender roles and differences between men and women in Chinese society is one of the main reasons she became so famous. Intel surely knew this when asking Yang to be their brand ambassador.

In light of the controversy, the fact that Intel was so quick to remove Yang also triggered criticism. Some (male) netizens felt that Intel, a company that sells laptops, could not be represented by a woman who makes fun of men, while these men are a supposed target audience for Intel products.

But after Yang was removed, many (female) netizens also felt offended, suggesting that in the 21st century, Intel couldn’t possibly believe that their products were mainly intended for men (“以男性用户为主”)? Wasn’t their female customer base just as important?

According to online reports, Intel responded by saying: “We noted that the content [we] spread relating to Yang Li caused controversy, and this is not what we had anticipated. We place great importance on diversity and inclusion. We fully recognize and value the diverse world we live in, and are committed to working with partners from all walks of life to create an inclusive workplace and social environment.”

However, Intel’s decision backfired, as many wondered why having Yang as their brand ambassador would not go hand in hand with ‘promoting an inclusive social environment.’

“Who are you being ‘inclusive’ too? Common ‘confident’ men?”, one person wrote, with others saying: “Why can so many beauty and cosmetic brands be represented by male idols and celebrities? I loathe these double standards.”

“As a Chinese guy, I really think Yang Li is funny. I didn’t realize Chinese men had such a lack of humor!” another Weibo user writes.

There are also people raising the issue of Yang’s position and how people are confusing her performative work with her actual character. One popular law blogger wrote: “Really, boycotting Yang Li is meaningless. Stand-up comedy is a performance, just as the roles people play in a TV drama.”

Just a month ago, another Chinese comedian also came under fire for his work as a brand ambassador for female underwear brand Ubras.

It is extremely common in China for celebrities to be brand ambassadors; virtually every big celebrity is tied to one or more brands. Signing male celebrities to promote female-targeted products is also a popular trend (Li 2020). Apparently, there is still a long way to go when the tables are turned – especially when it is about female celebrities with a sharp tongue.

By Manya Koetse

Li, Xiaomeng. 2020. “How powerful is the female gaze? The implication of using male celebrities for promoting female cosmetics in China.” Global Media and China, Vol.5 (1), p.55-68.

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©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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The Online Hit of the China-US Meeting in Alaska: Interpreter Zhang Jing

While the China-US meeting is all the talk, it is interpreter Zhang Jing who has hit the limelight.

Manya Koetse

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It probably was not easy to translate the tough talks at the high-level meeting between the U.S. and China in Anchorage. Chinese female translator Zhang Jing became an online hit in China for remaining unflustered, graceful, and accurate.

Over the past days, the U.S.-China strategic talks in Anchorage have been a major topic of discussion on Chinese social media.

The first major U.S.-China meeting of the Biden administration ended on Friday, March 19. Despite the tense start of the meeting and some describing the talks as a “diplomatic clash,” China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi (杨洁篪) called the meeting “frank, constructive and helpful,” New York Times reports.

While international media focused on the meeting and what their outcome means for Sino-American relations and the foreign strategies of China and the U.S., many Weibo users focused on interpreter Zhang Jing (张京) who joined the meeting.

One video of the first session of the diplomatic talks shows how Yang Jiechi starts his response to the American side at 8.30 minutes, going on for over 15 minutes until the 24.36-minute mark. Next to him, interpreter Zhang Jing is fiercely taking notes.

When Yang is finished speaking, he glances to foreign minister Wang Yi on his right to let him speak, after which Zhang says, “Shall I first translate?”

While the U.S. side was awaiting the translation, Yang then says: “Ok, you translate,” adding in English: “It’s a test for the interpreter,” after which the American side says “We’re gonna give the translator a raise!”

Zhang then goes ahead and calmly translates Yang’s entire 15-minute speech directed at American secretary Blinken and national security advisor Sullivan.

To give a speedy translation of such a lengthy off-the-record speech is seen as a sign of Zhang’s utmost professionalism as an interpreter, which many on Weibo praise. “She’s my idol,” multiple people write.

On Sunday, the hashtag “China-U.S. Talks Female Interpreter Zhang Jing” (#中美对话女翻译官张京#) had reached 200 million views.

It’s not the first time for Zhang to become an online hit. She was previously also called “the most beautiful interpreter” of the National Congress in 2013.

Zhang Jing is a graduate of the China Foreign Affairs University (外交学院) and has been working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 2007.

Being an interpreter is generally regarded an exciting and attractive job by many Chinese netizens, as the career involves much traveling and international contacts. But the ability to master another language than Chinese is also often admired.

In 2016, a TV drama titled The Interpreters (亲爱的翻译官) became a major hit, featuring Chinese actress Yang Mi who plays a Chinese-French interpreter on her way to start her professional career.

“Translators are usually the ‘heroes behind the scenes’,” one commenter writes, pointing out how rare it is for an interpreter to hit the limelight like this.

“There are still people saying it’s not important to learn English,” another Weibo user writes: “But if that were true, how could we educate brilliant interpreters like Zhang Jing? How else could we quarrel with Americans at the conference table?!”

Many who write about Zhang on Weibo say that she is an example or a role model to them: “I hope that my spoken English one day would be as excellent as hers. This motivates me to try even harder.”

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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