Page last updated at 00:31 GMT, Saturday, 14 June 2008 01:31 UK

China's most famous foreigner

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Mark Rowswell, or Dashan
Dashan is known to hundreds of millions of Chinese people

The most famous foreigner in China is a household name in his adopted country, recognised by almost everyone.

But the Canadian can walk down the street in his home city of Toronto without anyone giving him a second look.

Dashan - a name that means "big mountain" in Chinese - has managed to achieve something other stars would pay millions for.

He can turn his celebrity status on and off: one day he is feted by millions, the next he is an ordinary family man.

Forty-three year-old Mark Rowswell, to give Dashan his English name, has been China's most famous foreigner for 20 years.

His fame is built on his now legendary ability to speak Mandarin Chinese better than many Chinese people.

He started studying Chinese in Canada, but it was only when he came to Beijing to further his studies in 1988 that he came to prominence.

That year, he performed a comic skit on national television in front of an estimated audience of 550 million people.

"I was in the right place at the right time," said Dashan, on a break from filming a TV series, a 52-episode show teaching foreigners how to speak Chinese.

"You'd seen foreigners in entertainment before, but they usually played the bad guy getting their heads kicked in in a kung fu movie or an evil imperialist."

'Next-door neighbour'

Dashan built on his initial success, hosting television shows, acting, endorsing products and mastering "crosstalk".

Mark Rowswell, or Dashan, pictured on set with a colleague
Dashan has established a successful career in the entertainment industry

This is a form of Chinese stand-up comedy in which actors amaze audiences with their verbal dexterity.

Most Chinese people cannot master "crosstalk", let alone foreigners.

Since then, Mark Rowswell has successfully marketed his alter ego - Dashan, the inoffensive foreigner who looks like the guy next door.

"The image of Dashan is a collective thing that's built up over 20 years," he said, referring to himself in the third person.

"The image is not that of an idol. It's very much your next-door neighbour image. I don't live the life of a celebrity."

That life sees Dashan spend about half the year in Toronto with his Chinese wife and two children, and half the year working in Beijing.

He makes about six or seven trips to the Chinese capital every year. While in Beijing, he tries to cram in as much work as possible.

One of his more recent projects was acting in the Chinese adaptation of a French play called The Dinner Game.


But whatever he does, Mr Rowswell is keen to avoid being labelled as just another foreigner who speaks good Chinese.

"If people want to hire Dashan then we can talk about that, but if they're only looking for a foreigner who speaks Chinese, than I'm not interested," he explained.

There are now many foreigners in China who speak excellent Chinese, but somehow Dashan is the only one who has nationwide recognition.

In order to achieve that, Mark Rowswell appears to have emphasised Dashan's blandness, his acceptability to ordinary Chinese people.

"Some foreigners say I'm too soft, that there's no edge to Dashan," he said, citing his refusal to get drawn into political issues.

But he added: "The whole Western perception of China is so heavily politicised that it's important for some of us to say politics isn't everything."

Such diplomatic language is the reason why Dashan will probably remain popular in China for some time to come.

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