Mark Rowswell is likely the most famous Canadian you’ve never heard about. To some 800 million people in China, he’s instantly recognizable as the performer Dashan, which means Big Mountain – apt for the six-foot-two celebrity. And this summer, the 39-year-old’s career will get a boost when he stars on China’s national TV station in the drama Palace Artist, based on the life of 18th-century painter and Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione.
Yes, things turned out rather well for this graduate of Chinese studies at U of T. After he landed at Beijing University as a foreign-exchange student in 1988, Rowswell responded to an open invitation for foreign talent to appear on a TV variety show. He performed a traditional form of Chinese comic dialogue known as xiangsheng (“crosstalk”), a highly scripted and polished skit of wordplays (think Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First”).
Dashan evolved into a cross-cultural ambassador, frequently appearing as a host of TV variety and educational programs, and even as celebrity pitchman. Speaking of his persona, Rowswell says, “It’s a guy who’s western on the outside and Chinese on the inside.” Rowswell now lives part time in “near anonymity” in Thornhill, Ontario, with his wife, Lin, and their two children.