Meet “Dashan,” the Canadian Comedian Who Achieved Accidental Stardom in China

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.

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