Western students of the Chinese language tend to know Dashan. Sometimes they don’t like him very much. The variety of possible explanations obviously includes simple jealousy, since Dashan (given name Mark Rowswell) enjoys fame across China for his mastery of Mandarin. But just as this anti-Dashan resentment actually springs from more complicated causes, so the fervently pro-Dashan feelings of millions of Chinese fans spring from more than his unusual fluency. Ambassador to China’s Funny Bone, the fifty-minute documentary above, traces Dashan’s seemingly uncalculated rise from his undergraduate days in Chinese studies at the University of Toronto, to his breakthrough appearance on China Central Television’s 1988 New Year’s Gala, to his inescapable presence on the Chinese stage and screen — including but by no means limited to endorsing a “Canadian fast food restaurant.” This sort of celebrity makes one instinctively want to paraphrase Samuel Johnson’s line about the dog walking on its hind legs: even if a westerner speaking Chinese on television is not done well, audiences are surprised to find it done at all.
But Dashan does do it well, and he does it in a context even more challenging than a four-legged animal walking upright: the traditional form of language comedy known as xiangsheng. The documentary shows Dashan performing as part of a duo, and just above you can see him going solo. Outside of this specialized setting, observers have compared his mild, easygoing, friendly — dare I say Canadian? — persona to Dick Clark’s; one interviewee in Ambassador even describes him as harmlessly symbolizing Canada just as a panda symbolizes China. Yet his detractors have grown vocal enough to prompt someone to publicly ask, on question-and-answer site Quora, “Why do so many Chinese learners seem to hate Dashan?” The top answer comes from Dashan himself, who provides a thorough, clearheaded, and self-aware analysis of the perception of his character. He even cites, approvingly, the answer from China watcher and rocker Kaiser Kuo: “Dashan seems like a nice enough guy, but for some reason every once in a while I have the urge to punch him in the face.”
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.