Mark Rowswell has done more than make a name for himself as a comedian. He has also become a cultural conduit between China and the West, particularly Canada, his native land.
While studying at Beijing University, he was asked to host a television show because he was fluent in both Mandarin and English. That led to a comedy skit on national television during a New Year’s Eve special seen by 500 million.
In the skit, he played a character called Dashan, which means big mountain, and became a star virtually overnight. His popularity has soared over the past 20 years, so much so that Yao Ming, the iconic basketball star in China, once lined up for his autograph.
Rowswell has transcended the role of celebrity performer. He was the Team Attaché to the Canadian Olympic Committee at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and Commissioner General for Canada at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. He has also been awarded a special recognition from the Canadian Cancer Society for serving as its goodwill ambassador in China.
In 1999, U of T selected Rowswell as one of the “100 alumni who shaped the century” while Time declared him one of the leaders of the 21st century. In 2006, he was named to the Order of Canada for his work in uniting the Canadian and Chinese peoples through “laughter, understanding and goodwill.” In 2012, Prime Minister Stephen Harper named him Goodwill Ambassador to China.
"In my third year at U of T, my professor threw away the textbooks and gave students passages from Chinese newspapers and books written by Chinese for Chinese. It gave me a huge boost in my quest to speak Mandarin."
Rowswell, as Dashan, continues to entertain and enlighten Chinese audiences. He has appeared in campaigns against smoking and suicide and has urged Chinese citizens to reduce global warming through energy conservation.
“On both sides, there is a preconception that Asians and Westerners are really different, but Dashan breaks that down,” Rowswell says.